Vote: Is distracted walking a problem worth creating a law for?

A few months ahead of its second reading in the Ontario legislature, a so-called “zombie bill” proposed by Liberal MPP Yvan Baker is proving divisive.

The bill, officially called the Phones Down, Heads Up Act, targets distracted pedestrians by proposing fines for people caught using mobile devices while crossing the street. If the law passes, first offenders could face a fine of $50, while people who are caught a second or third time could result in $75 and $125 fines respectively.

The act includes exemptions for pedestrians using mobile devices to call emergency services and for pedestrians who started a phone call before they entered a roadway.

When Baker presented the bill this fall, he cited a 2015 report by Toronto Public Health that found inattentive pedestrians were 40 per cent more susceptible to collision than attentive ones.

“Experts tell us that if you are distracted as a pedestrian, you are more likely to get hurt,” he said. “If you walk the streets, you see people on their cell phones crossing the road.”

If passed, he said, the bill would also require an annual Ministry of Transportation-led awareness campaign about distracted driving.

“I found that a large number of accidents are related to distractions caused by smartphones,” he said, “and a lot of accidents have to do with distracted driving.”

But aside from including plans for a driver-targeted awareness campaign, critics of the bill like NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo say the bill blames vulnerable road users rather than protecting them.

“There is little or no evidence that the advent of cell phones has lead to an increase in deaths due to distracted walking,” DiNovo said, citing statistics published by the Ministry of Transportation that show the number of deaths caused by distracted walking did not increase at all between 1993 and 2012.

“However, these MTO statistics do show that deaths due to distracted driving nearly tripled during this time.”

Dylan Reid, spokesperson for pedestrian-safety advocacy group Walk Toronto, criticized the law for law misdirecting attention for pedestrian deaths towards the victims.

“When [a] 2015 Toronto Public Health study shows almost two thirds of collisions are drivers’ responsibility, distracted walking is minor issue,” he said on Twitter.

But Baker isn’t the first politician to take on distracted walking. A distracted walking law took effect in Honolulu on October 25, and Rexburg, Idaho has been ticketing distracted pedestrians since 2011.