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Reading This While Walking? In Honolulu, It Could Cost You

“A lot of people do it; they know it’s risky and do it anyway. They convince themselves that ‘this text is important,’” he said. “It’s something we need to be aware of.”

There is a dearth of data directly linking distracted walking to pedestrian injuries and deaths, but it seems to be a global problem, too. Preliminary studies “give a hint to unsafe behavior,” said Dr. Etienne Krug, director of the Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention at the World Health Organization.


Charles Chan Massey, chief executive of a management firm, in San Francisco. “I’m guilty myself” of using his smartphone while walking. “A lot of people do it; they know it’s risky and do it anyway,” he added. Credit Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

People who text and walk, for example, are nearly four times as likely to engage in at least one dangerous action, like jaywalking or not looking both ways, and take 18 percent more time to cross a street than undistracted pedestrians. Solutions, Dr. Krug said, are “hard to legislate and even harder to enforce.”

A number of other cities have come up with creative ways to help protect so-called cellphone zombies, who talk, text, listen to music, check their email and even snap selfies. Initiatives include low-tech efforts, like edgy signs in Hayward, Calif. (“Heads Up! Cross the Street. Then Update Facebook.”) and no-selfie zones in Mumbai, and specially designed traffic lights in Europe and several pieces of legislation in reaction to Honolulu’s new law.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo County, Calif., unanimously passed a resolution prohibiting pedestrians’ use of cellphones while crossing streets. It’s not enforceable, as state law governs such issues, but David Canepa, who introduced the measure, said it was an important springboard; the resolution is expected to go to the California Legislature for statewide consideration in January.

“There is chaos in the crosswalks,” said Mr. Canepa, who admits to a few close calls with distracted driving and walking himself. “I know it’s an issue. I’ve lived it. My cellphone is my life.”

As children, he said, we are taught to look both ways when crossing a street, but “you can’t look both ways when you’re looking down and texting.”

Critics are concerned about personal freedom and slow to adjust to new ideas, Mr. Canepa said. “But at the end of the day, people understand the value of public safety,” he added. “This legislation is practical and is common sense. It will save lives.”

At least 10 states have debated similar legislation dealing with distracted pedestrians or bicyclists; none of it has passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislation is pending in two states, the group said, and in September, New York passed a law that directs New York City to study its efforts to educate the public on the dangers of distracted walking.


Texting while walking in San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood. Credit Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

Municipal laws are not tracked, but Rexburg, Idaho, may have been among the first to adopt a citywide ban, in 2011. The city recorded five pedestrian deaths in a short period in a concentrated area. It was a high toll, given the city’s size: about 35,000 residents.

“It was a shock to our system,” said Stephen Zollinger, Rexburg’s city attorney.

Distracted walking was suspected. Along with other safety measures, Rexburg barred pedestrians from using hand-held devices — except while talking — while crossing public streets, he said, and “we’ve not had a pedestrian fatality since.”

Bodegraven, a small town near Amsterdam, tried a different approach. This year, it embedded LED-illuminated strips in the crosswalk at a busy intersection — right in the line of sight of people staring at their phones. When the traffic lights turn red or green, so do the lights at ground level, alerting pedestrians when it’s safe to cross.

The pilot program aims to anticipate trends, not reverse them, said Dolf Roodenburg, the project leader and a traffic engineer in the Netherlands. If it’s successful, the town hopes to install the lights at more intersections and on bike paths, and offer them to other cities.

In Augsburg, Germany, similar lights were installed last year after a teenager using her smartphone was struck and seriously injured by a tram when she walked onto the tracks.

There are, of course, contrary points of view on the effectiveness of legislating pedestrian behavior.

Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation and now transportation principal at Bloomberg Associates, which advises mayors around the world, said laws against texting and walking were not the answer. They have no basis in any research, are poorly conceived and distract from the road design and driver behavior issues that are responsible for most crashes, she said.


As part of a pilot program, Bodegraven, a town near Amsterdam, embedded illuminated strips in the crosswalk at a busy intersection — right in the line of sight of people staring at their phones. The lights change color in sync with traffic lights. Credit HIG Traffic Systems

“It’s an easy way out. Engineering is a lot more difficult, but a lot more efficient,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “Traffic safety is very serious business in government, based in sound analysis.”

She and others recommended focusing on proven strategies like vehicle speed reduction, which is one of the most effective ways to reduce deaths, as survival rates are higher in low-speed collisions.

Vehicle design can also help. “In some countries, cars are designed to be more forgiving to pedestrians,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council. Making bumpers softer and modifying the front ends of vehicles can reduce the severity of a pedestrian impact, but only 44 countries, mostly in Europe, require manufacturers to apply these protections, according to the W.H.O. The United States is not among them.

Rochelle Sobel, founder of the Association for Safe International Road Travel, a nonprofit group, said it was important for Americans traveling abroad to learn the local road culture. In the Dominican Republic, pedestrians do not have the right of way, and in some countries, drivers routinely ignore traffic regulations.

For example, they may fail to stop at intersections or red lights, Ms. Sobel said. In many low- and middle-income countries, where about 90 percent of the world’s road-traffic deaths occur, according to the W.H.O., pedestrians often share poorly maintained roads with animals, carts, cars, buses and trucks. Those roads are already high-risk environments not designed for walking, Ms. Sobel said.

Ms. Hersman, who previously served as chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said concerns about government overreach often lessened with time. Laws requiring seatbelt use or restricting smoking initially met resistance but now are widely accepted.

“It’s important to have an open mind,” she said. “Society can move forward.”

Mr. Massey of Synaxis said it would take some convincing for people to see value in laws to combat distracted walking.

“I agree in principle — begrudgingly,” he said. “It’s a bit Big Brotherish. We don’t like that in this country.”

European efforts are more realistic, Mr. Massey added. “I think the lights are brilliant,” he said. “It reflects an understanding of human nature: People are going to do it anyway, so let’s make it safer.”

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