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An Ontario politician is hoping to ban people from looking at their phones while crossing the road.Ridofranz/Getty Images/iStockphoto

An Ontario politician is hoping to ban people from looking at their phones while crossing the road, saying that the threat of a fine could serve to deter what he characterized as a risky behaviour.

Yvan Baker, a government MPP from a riding in west Toronto, rejected criticism that such legislation amounted to blaming pedestrians for being hit by drivers.

"If you are distracted as a pedestrian, you are more likely to get hurt," he told reporters Monday. "If even one death could be prevented by this bill, then it's a death that should be avoided."

How dangerous it is to walk while looking at a phone or other device is not clear. Some research suggests that distracted pedestrians put themselves at greater risk. Other analysis says the problem is vanishingly small.

A 2016 report by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that "distraction changes the way pedestrians walk, react and behave," but added that "there are no studies showing a direct link between the behavioural effects of distraction and pedestrian crash risk."

Toronto Police Constable Clint Stibbe said that he was not aware of any pedestrian fatalities that could be attributed to the victim using a phone during his five years as traffic services spokesman. There was only one incident he could bring to mind that seemed to fit this scenario, he said, but it was longer ago.

NDP transportation critic Cheri DiNovo said that Mr. Baker was shifting the focus away from real solutions.

"The issue is poor driving habits and the lack of enforcement of that," she said. "Most of the pedestrians that have been killed on the road have been seniors. You know, seniors are not known for talking on their cellphones, walking across the street."

Mr. Baker's move comes less than a week after Honolulu enacted a similar law, raising the ire of pedestrian advocates around the world. His private member's bill, which is not scheduled for debate until March, a few months before the next election, elicited a decidedly lukewarm response from Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca.

"I'll look at the debate," he said. "I'm not in a position right now to say that I'll be supporting it."

The minister stressed that people should be cautious when walking, and that doing it while distracted is unwise, but noted that legislation addressing this was not included in a road safety bill recently unveiled by the government.

"That [bill] gives a sense of what my focus is at the moment," Mr. Del Duca said.

Mr. Baker is proposing fines for crossing the road while using a phone or "electronic entertainment device." The penalties would start at $50, for a first offence, and rise to $125 by a third offence. Municipalities would be allowed to opt out. The bill would not cover people who have started a phone call before they began crossing the road.

The MPP was backed at his announcement by the Ontario Safety League and pointed to reports by the provincial coroner and Toronto Public Health that suggested a greater risk for pedestrians who are distracted.

"Approximately 20 per cent of pedestrians [killed] may have had some form of distraction, such as using a cell phone, an MP3 player, a mobile device, pushing a shopping cart, walking a dog, or riding a skateboard," the coroner stated in the 2012 report.

Other research paints a very different picture.

A comprehensive U.S. database known as the Fatality Analysis Reporting System shows that in the five most recently available years – 2010 through 2014 – personal electronic devices in the hands of people walking were found to be a factor in only 0.1 per cent of pedestrian fatalities.

Road safety has become an increasingly important political issue in Toronto, which in 2016 had its deadliest year for pedestrians in more than a decade. According to a Globe tally, 46 pedestrians were killed that year. The majority of these victims were 65 and older, in spite of this group representing only 14 per cent of the population, and in most cases the driver was deemed at fault.

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