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March 19, 2016

New Jersey lawmaker proposes ban on texting while walking

Bill would impose fines of up to $50, possible jail sentence for violators

Legislation Smartphones
031916_WalkingTexting Source/AP

Woman walks and texts in the city.

New Jersey residents may need to consider investing in a Bluetooth headset to carry on conversations while walking the streets after Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) proposed a bill this week that would criminalize text messaging while walking on public lanes.

The bill, introduced Monday, would impose fines of up to $50 and a potential 15-day jail sentence for pedestrians who walk using a non-hands-free device on public sidewalks and roadways. In effect, the bill would treat violators the same way jaywalkers are penalized under New Jersey law. 

On Twitter, the reaction to the proposed bill was swift and disapproving.

Still, legislation of this sort is not without precedent in the Garden State. In 2013, Fort Lee in Bergen County passed a local law banning texting while jaywalking – which was already illegal – after the town recorded 23 pedestrian accidents in the span of a few months. Lawmakers in New York and Arkansas have considered similar measures as well. 

There have also been a handful of ludicrous viral videos in the past few years, including a Los Angeles man who nearly walked into a bear while texting and a Wyomissing, Pa. lady who obliviously splashed into a mall fountain (posted below for your amusement). 

While at first blush this all may seem to be a frivolous and intrusive initiative, Lampitt told Mahwah Patch that the bill was motivated by a personal tragedy she witnessed as an employee of the University of Pennsylvania, when a student she knew was fatally struck by a bus as a crossed a busy street. He was using his phone at the time. 

Recent studies out of Stony Brook University and William Paterson University highlight the dangers of walking while distracted. In the former study, 61 percent of pedestrians who texted while walking "veered off course" and showed "lateral deviation." In the WPU study, nearly a third of the 21,000 pedestrians observed at five intersections were either wearing headphones, talking on their phones or gazing at a mobile device while crossing on a "Walk" signal. 

The bill comes amid heightened awareness of pedestrian safety in many American locales. In New Jersey, Assemblywoman Gabriela M. Mosquera attempted to create a "Distracted Walking Awareness Month" in 2014, but the measure never gained enough support. In Philadelphia, pedestrian safety was an important piece of Mayor Kenney's first budget address, building on the momentum of the Vision Zero initiative to improve traffic safety for cyclists and pedestrians.  

A criminal penalty for texting while walking the streets (or simply looking at a mobile device) may be a bit overkill, or an affront to what seems like common sense, but even if Lampitt's proposal goes nowhere, the attention serves as a valuable reminder for everyone – drivers, cyclists and pedestrians – to be more cognizant of our surroundings.