Want to send a text message while out on a stroll? In part of New Jersey, hold still, or face a hefty fine.
Fort Lee, N.J. banned texting while walking, illustrating how far lawmakers are going to remedy the dangers of texting-induced distractions. Three pedestrians in Fort Lee died because of texting while walking in the past year, and officials decided to outlaw the habit to ramp up safety measures. With a population of around 32,000, the city has already issued 117 tickets since the law’s start several weeks ago.
Fort Lee is the first place to start and enforce such strict guidelines. Philadelphia began a campaign to curb pedestrian texting, but the police issued reminders, not tickets, a far cry from Fort Lee’s $85 fine.
Other cities and towns have mulled distracted walking bans in the past, but none have passed them.
Research indicates texters on the move are 60 percent more likely to swerve into someone, but issuing tickets for the behavior is a little extreme. People have also died while listening to their iPods and crossing the street, but for most people who listen to music while walking, multitasking is not a problem. The ban dismisses the idea of personal responsibility and shows what it looks like when governments try to micromanage citizen behavior.
Aside from the distracted texting deaths in Fort Lee, distracted texters have made the national news on several occasions recently, with a man nearly walking into a bear, a teenager in China walking into a sinkhole and woman falling into a fountain — all stumbling because they glued their eyes to their phones.
Anyone doing anything besides staring directly at the road ahead is in danger of not paying attention, but one of the benefits of walking is you can’t kill anyone (besides possibly yourself) by going off-course and bumping into them.
Distracted driving bans are reasonable, because the fatalities and stakes are much higher. But aside from isolated incidents, texting while walking is not particularly more treacherous than doing anything else while walking.
Fort Lee’s decision to focus on distracted pedestrians, instead of accelerating a campaign to punish the far more lethal problem of distracted driving, misdirects valuable time and energy. Moreover, people may respect law enforcement authorities less if they receive tickets they perceive as unwarranted, which may lead to an increase in illegal behaviors with legitimate risks, like texting while driving.
Distracted pedestrian texting might cause problems on occasion, but responding with a blanket ban is not an appropriate response. Lawmakers should focus their energies on curbing practices that are dangerous on a wider level, like distracted driving, or they run the risk of undermining the authority of its law enforcement officials by asking them to carry out a petty ban.
If Fort Lee’s policy takes hold in other cities, it will do more to inspire doubt about law enforcement’s priorities than it will to keep people safe. Targeting distracted pedestrians demonstrates a profound lack of efficiency, as the town goes after people who are primarily nuisances, not dangers. Fort Lee and other areas contemplating a distracted pedestrian ban should refocus their efforts on distracted drivers and more pressing public safety concerns.