Honolulu Becomes First City to Ban Texting While Crossing Streets

Its for your own good, you know.


Woman texting

Honolulu's recently passed ban on texting while crossing the street will do little to promote public safety while subjecting citizens to a whole new set of petty fines and government intrusions.

The "distracted walking" bill, the nation's first in a major city, bans anyone from "looking in the direction of the screen of a mobile device" while crossing a street. Violators are subject to fines ranging from $15 to $99, depending on the number of offences.

Residents of Honolulu were up in arms about the ban even before it passed, with many submitting critical testimony to the city council.

"Stop treating our citizens like we are babies," said Shannon Ball said in a letter to city councilmembers.

"This bill proposes to infringe on personal freedom in exchange for some unquantified perception of safety. I have seen no attempt by any party to justify this infringement," added another.

Indeed, little suggests that Honolulu is a particularly dangerous place for pedestrians, nor that ticketing smartphone users in the streets will make it much safer.

In Smart Growth America's ranking of 104 cities on their Pedestrian Death Index, Honolulu came in well below average at 82nd, with 1.76 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents.

The small but entertaining literature on those injured while distracted by their devices also undercuts the notion that smartphone users are uniquely endangered by road crossings.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Safety research found that 52 percent of accidents resulting from a distracting cellphone occurred at home, not along roadways or in cross walks. Of those who's 'distracted walking' injuries were severe enough to warrant admittance to an emergency room, 85 percent were able to be released without further hospitalization.

Attempting to fix this imagined epidemic of "smartphone zombies" with fines is also problematic.

As with many local ordinances that subject everyday behavior to civil and criminal sanctions, Honolulu's 'distracted walking' ordinance opens up residents—particularly homeless residents—to greater degree of petty harassment from law enforcement.

As Reason has covered previously, jaywalking ordinances have been used by cities before as a way of forcing homeless residents away from downtown areas and tourist attractions.

Honolulu itself has engaged in this kind of targeted enforcement under current mayor Kirk Caldwell's "compassionate disruption" policy, handing out tickets for everything from sitting on sidewalks to being on beaches after hours.

"Tickets, tickets, tickets," one Honolulu homeless woman told The New York Times in 2014, saying "The cops give you a ticket to keep you moving. And then you have to pay the ticket for sleeping in the park. It gets to you."

Adding a new offense for the normal activity of glancing at an electronic device while crossing an intersection gives police one more excuse to engage in this kind of enforcement.

Yet despite the safety and civil liberties concerns expressed by Honolulu residents, Caldwell has stood behind the distracted walking ordinance, saying at a signing ceremony, "sometimes I wish there were laws that we did not have to pass, that perhaps common sense would prevail. But sometimes we lack common sense"

Indeed, sometimes we do.