Living in cities makes wannabe legislators of us all. Every day, urbanites have occasion to shake a scornful fist and say, There oughtta be a law. There can't be a modern city behavior more liable to elicit this high-handed oath than the guy who walks down the street, or worse, crosses the street, with his head buried in his phone.
Some people are legislators in real life, not just in their passive-aggressive daydreams, so when they feel like there oughtta be a law, they put forward a private member's bill. That's what Ontario Liberal MPP Yvan Baker has done with the Phones Down, Heads Up Act. It would slap fines on people caught staring at their devices while crossing the street.
Honolulu enacted a similar law in October, apparently the first of its kind for a major city. And last summer, Toronto city council asked the province to consider banning texting in intersections. Mr. Baker's bill will no doubt poll well, as Premier Kathleen Wynne may have intuited when she called it an "interesting idea."
But here's the thing: Often when people vaguely feel that there oughtta be a law, there ought not. As a rule, we shouldn't legislate against the merely annoying or off-putting. And that's what zombie walking is.
In Ontario, while injuries and deaths from distracted driving have spiked in the cellphone age, distracted walking appears to have had virtually no effect on the safety statistics, according to a recent analysis by Global News. Recent American auto collision data show roughly the same thing: Electronic devices in the hands of walkers were a factor in just 25 of 23,240 pedestrian deaths from 2010 through 2014.
Our car-centric cities and suburbs too easily become killing fields for those navigating them on foot, especially the elderly. The problem is cars, not people negligently walking into them.
If you want to save pedestrian lives, slow down the vehicles. Install more crosswalks. Add speed bumps. Lower speed limits. Widen sidewalks. Narrow roads.
None of this means crossing the street with your head buried in a smartphone is a good idea. It makes you look like a dolt, with that shuffling gait that says, I'm only 30-per-cent certain there isn't an obstacle in front of me. And it makes you a nuisance to others, who often comprise those obstacles. But not every nuisance should be legislated away. No matter what we city-dwellers may mutter under our breath.