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When it comes to texting while walking, this is why ‘zombies’ need nannies: Cohn

A law against texting while crosswalking amounts to victim shaming and blaming, critics say. They should look again.

A man crosses the road while texting on his smart phone in downtown Toronto on Oct. 30, 2017. An Etobicoke MPP has put forward a private member's bill to ban distracted walking.

NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS

A man crosses the road while texting on his smart phone in downtown Toronto on Oct. 30, 2017. An Etobicoke MPP has put forward a private member's bill to ban distracted walking.

Texting while crossing can be hazardous, but banning it can be hostile.

That’s the logical speed trap people are falling into as politicians debate whether to make distracted walking a provincial offence. Suddenly, pedestrians are paying attention to the proposal — and taking great offence.

The competing narratives go something like this:

One camp has long raged about an imagined war on the car, taking umbrage whenever politicians try to dial down speed limitsor ramp up bicycle paths. They point the finger at distracted pedestrians who put themselves in harm’s way without looking both ways.

The other side bemoans the supposed victory of the vehicle, fuming over the encroachment of automobiles. And asks:

How dare you fault people for dying while walking and talking? A law against texting while crosswalking amounts to victim shaming and blaming, critics say.

Ontario’s legislature will soon debate a private member’s bill that would levy an initial $50 fine on pedestrians caught looking at their phones instead of looking both ways. Honolulu has just passed a similar law, Toronto councillors are keen, but critics won’t hear of it.

In the resulting war of words, distracted walkers are dismissed as “zombies,” while meddling lawmakers are lumped in with the “nanny state.” And so the subtext of any anti-texting law is this:

Do zombies need nannies?

Setting aside the name-calling, most of us know the limits of texting while multi-tasking. You can lose situational awareness within seconds — whether behind the wheel or in front of a speeding vehicle.

We know that distracted driving has eclipsed drunk driving as the greatest peril on our roadways. That’s why stiff fines have been imposed in recent years with little pushback.

Why are pedestrians so defensive about being required to look up from their phones before crossing the street? A frequent argument is that they do no harm, because they aren’t the ones driving a speeding mass of steel into an intersection.

But that overlooks the risk to cyclists who might collide with a pedestrian stepping into the road without looking. Or the evasive manoeuvres they take, causing a deadly chain reaction with other vehicles.

In any case, there’s nothing wrong with the state protecting us from ourselves. Remember that motorcycle helmets are imposed on bikers to protect themselves from harm, not others. Similarly, seatbelt laws are compulsory for drivers, sometimes to guard against their own folly.

As such, those self-protective seatbelt and helmet laws are the ultimate expression of the nanny state in action. A law that protects distracted pedestrians from self-inflicted peril is little different.

Critics point to statistics showing mobile phones are rarely a factor in pedestrian deaths. But those figures aren’t the full story, for they don’t tell us how often mobiles are a factor in non-fatal injuries, nor do they describe the close calls that are never recorded but can’t be denied.

The absence of data doesn’t mean we can close our eyes to accidents waiting to happen.

“If you are distracted as a pedestrian, you are more likely to get hurt,” said Yvan Baker, a Liberal MPP (Etobicoke Centre) behind the legislation. “If even one death could be prevented by this bill, then it’s a death that should be avoided.”

No one is expecting police officers at every corner ticketing distracted walkers, just as we don’t expect the cops to blitz jaywalkers every day. Yet we keep jaywalking laws on the books as a way of encouraging people to obey the rules at crosswalks.

The difficulties of enforcement need not deter us from enacting laws that have a useful deterrent value.

Just as jaywalking laws are aspirational (and barely enforceable) so too a ban on distracted crosswalking could be educational (and rarely adversarial). The alternative is to keep playing the victim card — cars bad, pedestrians good; your fault, not mine.

Yes, drivers wield an imbalance of power and must yield the right of way. But pedestrians who walk without looking are looking for trouble — right or wrong.

If that’s the law, so much the better.

Martin Regg Cohn’s political column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. mcohn@thestar.ca, Twitter: @reggcohn

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