Jared Schumacher is among the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who routinely use electronic devices to text, listen to music or do other tasks as they walk outdoors.
But if a “distracted walking” measure recently proposed by a state assemblywoman eventually becomes law, the Trenton, New Jersey, man and others like him could be facing fines or even jail time.
“I admit that I’m usually listening to music, talking on my phone or texting while I’m walking around,” the 20-year-old said while responding to a text as he walked along a street in the state capital last weekend. “I’ve never hurt myself, but I’ve seen people walk into poles or trip over a big crack in the sidewalk.”
Experts say distracted walking is a growing problem around the globe, as people of all ages become more dependent on electronic devices for personal and professional matters.
They also note that pedestrian deaths involving motor vehicle crashes have been rising in recent years. Eleven percent of all motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2005 involved pedestrians, but that number rose to 15 percent in 2014.
The rise in deaths coincides with states introducing bills that target pedestrians and/or bicyclists. For instance, a bill pending in Hawaii would fine someone $250 if he or she crossed the street with an electronic device. In recent years, similar bills have failed in states including Arkansas, Illinois, Nevada and New York.
“Thus far, no states have enacted a law specifically targeting distracted bicyclists or pedestrians,” said Douglas Shinkle, transportation program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. But he added that “a few states continue to introduce legislation every year.”
The measure recently introduced by New Jersey Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt would ban walking while texting and bar pedestrians on public roads from using electronic communication devices unless they are hands-free. Violators would face fines of up to $50, 15 days imprisonment or both, which is the same penalty as jaywalking.
Half of the fine would be allocated to safety education about the dangers of walking and texting, Lampitt, a Democrat, said.
Some see the proposal as an unnecessary government overreach, while others say they understand Lampitt’s reasoning. But most agree that people need to be made aware of the issue rather than taking for granted that nothing bad will happen to them.
“Distracted pedestrians, like distracted drivers, present a potential danger to themselves and drivers on the road,” Lampitt said. “An individual crossing the road distracted by their smartphone presents just as much danger to motorists as someone jaywalking and should be held, at minimum, to the same penalty.”
The main question raised about the measure, though, is whether it can be enforced consistently by police officers who usually have more pressing matters to deal with. Schumacher is among those who feel that rather than imposing a new law, the state should focus on distracted walking education.
Lampitt said the measure is needed to dissuade and penalize “risky behavior.” She cited a National Safety Council report that shows distracted walking incidents involving cellphones accounted for an estimated 11,101 injuries from 2000 through 2011.
The study found a majority of those injured were female and most were 40 or younger. Talking on the phone was the most prevalent activity at the time of injury, while texting accounted for 12 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the injuries occurred as the result of a fall, while nine percent occurred from the pedestrian striking a motionless object.
The most common injury types included dislocations or fractures, sprains or strains and concussions or contusions.
A hearing on the proposed New Jersey measure has not been scheduled.