‘Zombie law’ is a bad idea
It is tempting to support any legislation that would impose fines on those people who habitually bury their faces in a smartphone and walk the city streets oblivious to the crowds and cars around them.
But while the eponymous phone-crazed “zombies” of a proposed new provincial “zombie law” are no doubt irritating, study after study has shown they don’t pose a significant threat to themselves or others.
As such, the newly tabled private member’s bill at Queen’s Park aimed at curbing so-called “distracted walking” amounts to evidence-blind legislative overreach. The proposed law, which would impose fines of up to $125 for crossing the street while using a cellphone, is itself a distraction from the real causes and solutions to Ontario’s — and, in particular, Toronto’s — growing pedestrian safety problem.
Forty-two pedestrians were fatally struck by cars in this city last year, the worst death toll in more than a decade. Yet it’s not at all clear that cellphones played much, if any, role. A 2015 study from Toronto Public Health found that pedestrian inattentiveness, including but not limited to cellphone use, contributed to 13 per cent of all collisions. But American data suggest that pedestrians’ use of phones in particular isn’t much of a problem. According to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a U.S. government database, electronic devices were found to be a factor in a scant 0.1 per cent of pedestrian fatalities.
There are other reasons to question the proposed law. Most pedestrian casualties in Toronto are seniors, not the demographic known for Instagram obsessions. And in a vast majority of cases, the victim had the right of way. It seems pretty clear that distracted driving, not distracted walking, is the primary cause for the recent rise in deaths. And where pedestrians are at fault, right-of-way laws already exist.
Despite the redundancy of the bill and the misguided message of shared culpability that it sends, Toronto city council is enthusiastically on board. Last year, it passed a motion asking the province to pursue a ban on distracted walking.
At the time, the motion’s author, Councillor Frances Nunziata, suggested that texting behind the wheel and texting while walking through an intersection are “the same.” Of course, she overlooked the rather obvious fact that a driver operates a machine capable of killing and maiming while the pedestrian is operating, well, a pair of feet.
That’s not to say pedestrians shouldn’t pay attention when they cross the street. Common sense clearly demands that they do. But is the law really the right tool for encouraging this sort of behaviour? And would the considerable enforcement costs yield the desired benefits?
The Wynne government has shown an encouraging reluctance to go down this path. Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca quickly dismissed the city’s request last year to ban distracted walking. Instead, his government passed a bill that rightly focused on the real problem of distracted driving.
So far, Del Duca has hedged on whether he will support the new bill, put forward by Liberal backbencher Yvan Baker. The minister and his colleagues should not. The law exists largely to protect others from the harm we do. We should make exceptions, such as with seatbelts and helmets, only when the evidence is sufficiently strong to overcome our appropriate reluctance to use the power of the law to protect people from themselves.
Distracted walkers are annoying. Unnecessary laws are worse.
Where pedestrians are at fault, right-of-way laws already exist