New Jersey Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt isn’t trying to be a buzz-killing, technology-hating Luddite by proposing legislation to impose a $50 fine on anyone caught texting or talking on a smartphone without a hands-free device while walking.
She simply wants to save the lives of “petextrians,” which are an endangered species at busy intersections in America’s biggest cities.
The maximum penalty for being a “petextrian,” a person who texts while walking, would be a $50 fine and 15-day jail sentence. It’s not as extreme as it seems. People caught jaywalking are subject to the same $50/15-day punishment.
To this Democrat, it is a very personal issue. A student at the University of Pennsylvania, where Lampitt works, was hit by a bus while he was texting and walking across a street on campus.
Lampitt said her legislation is not intended to take a smartphone and the ability to text at will away from New Jersey residents. It would be OK as long as the petextrian is using a hands-free device to talk or text.
“You should not be distracted; you should be aware of what’s going on around you, especially in the street,” she said.
Hers is not a first-of-its-kind recognition of this problem that has been around since early humans first learned that, thanks to their opposable digits, they could pick up things more efficiently than their animal cousins without thumbs.
Videos of people walking into lampposts, doors, and water fountains, falling down stairs and escalators, and missing cubicle chairs are legion and well-documented as 21st-century fails.
But the accidents that seem laughable on YouTube can be incredibly bloody.
A Governors Highway Safety Association study from 2015 blamed texting while walking as one of the reasons for a 15 percent increase in pedestrians getting killed in accidents.
Forty percent of teenagers responding to a Safe Kids Worldwide study said they had been hit or nearly hit by a car, bike or motorcycle while walking. Eighteen percent of them were texting at the time. Twenty percent were talking on a cell phone.
However, the ugly truth is that texting and/or talking on a phone while walking is more than a fact of life in the 21st century. It is a necessity.
A Pew Research Center study released in August 2015 showed petextrians might be falling down open manholes while they are doing it, but 82 percent of people who text on smartphones while walking do so to look up information about where they are going or how to get to their destination. Forty-four percent of that number claim to be frequent petextrians.
Sixty-one percent of the people who are texting or talking on their smartphones while walking said they had to do it to catch up on tasks they needed to accomplish. Close to 52 percent of cell phone users told Pew the same thing.
Of course, there are those who are texting or talking just to have something to do while they are walking, as if walking by itself wasn’t enough to occupy their minds. Seventy-six percent of cell phone owners between the ages of 18 and 29 admitted to texting or talking for no particular reason.
But another 23 percent of cell phone owners may have come up with the best reason to text or talk while walking – avoiding others who are nearby. Female cell phone owners under the age of 50, according to the Pew study, are more likely than anyone else to use a duck-and-text strategy to create a bubble of security. Twelve percent of women ages 18 to 49 said they do that quite often.
Aaron Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, told the Washington Post people using their phones for texting and talking while walking is also a sign that many of us are having trouble drawing a line between our professional and personal lives.
“We have not figured out a good way [to distinguish] partially because people are kind of floating along in a sea of this stuff,” Smith said. “Even asking them to parse out which of their phone use is of a personal nature or professional nature or somewhere in between, it’s hard for users to contextualize that.”
The list of problems from texting and talking while walking doesn’t stop with falls, spills, and increased workaholic behavior. Doctors warn of a new affliction, “text neck,” and say it could be reaching epidemic proportions.
In a nutshell, text neck is the result of looking down at one’s phone, and holding one’s dozen-pound human head at anywhere from a 15-degree to a 60-degree angle, increasing the weight on the cervical spine from 27 to 60 pounds.
So, it’s all pretty scary stuff. Will it be enough to motivate Assemblywoman Lampitt’s colleagues to see the wisdom of her proposal?
New Jersey already has a law that bans “distracted driving.” But the idea of making September “Distracted Walking Awareness Month” in New Jersey died two years ago in a state legislative committee.
So, there’s no telling what will happen to Lampitt’s proposal. Similar legislation has failed in Arkansas, Nevada and the state of New York.
But she thinks making the effort alone is time well spent.
“I see it every single day,” Lampitt said when she introduced the bill. “Maybe now they will think twice about it.”