Nothing wrong with reminding people that stepping into busy streets can be hazardous if they’re not paying attention, but writing a law can’t be the best way to make that point.
Nevertheless, that’s what the City Council is attempting to do with the introduction of Bill 43, which essentially extends the ban on using electronic devices behind the wheel, like hands-on cell phones, to pedestrians. If it passes, using a mobile electronic device while crossing a street or highway would be punishable by a fine like the one authorized by the drivers’ ban, which went into effect nearly two years ago.
City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi introduced the bill, which she said a constituent requested. It’s easy to see that this came with the best intentions. Honolulu has a terrible record of pedestrian fatalities, and although careless drivers bear much of the blame, inattentiveness among pedestrians who are talking or texting or otherwise immersed in an electronic device also has been a factor.
Kobayashi is not the first lawmaker to take this tack. State legislators in Illinois probably deserve that honor, considering a bill in 2008, but Arkansas and New York since have followed suit.
None of this makes the idea any smarter, as anyone who thinks it through will realize. There are two principal reasons why Bill 43 is the target of brickbats being hurled in early testimony and in online discussions. One is enforcement. Catching an inattentive pedestrian in the act will be nearly impossible, simply put.
Police resources, stretched thin as they are during lean budgetary times, can be used better by enforcing laws that protect more people. The ban on mobile devices while driving, as spottily enforced and observed as that one is, at least has the aim of protecting innocent citizens who could be injured or killed through a driver’s distraction. Pedestrians glued to their cellphones endanger only themselves.
The other issue, which frustrates many Americans, is the intrusiveness of such a law into what’s properly the realm of personal responsibility. People certainly are particularly enamored of their mobile devices, and interactions with them can be very engaging, but they’re not the only distractions.
What’s next? Will there be laws to ban reading in crosswalks or eating ice-cream cones? Under the ordinance, "audio equipment" isn’t covered, but why is listening to an iPod or even an old-fashioned radio any less diverting?
Rather than struggling to define what’s safe or not and figuring out ways to slap so many wrists, the Council — and leaders statewide — would be better off using the educational approach. Working with community groups to get out a public-service series would be more effective. The message is simple: "Pedestrians have the right-of-way in crosswalks, but being right doesn’t matter as much as being safe — pay attention to your surroundings."
Back in Arkansas, the lawmaker who sponsored that state’s bill said he never expected it to pass — it didn’t — but thought it was useful for bringing attention to the subject. If that was Kobayashi’s intent, then mission accomplished. Now it’s time to withdraw the bill and move on to more practical issues.