Penalizing distracted walkers is step in the wrong direction

OPINION: The “Phones Down, Heads Up” act won’t solve the real problems on Ontario’s roads. Liberal MPP Yvan Baker should drop his bad idea, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 31, 2017
Motorist speed is still the single biggest factor associated with pedestrian deaths. (m-gucci/iStock)

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​It’s never fun to watch a smart person do something dumb, and despite the criticism he’s getting from some corners this week, Liberal MPP Yvan Baker isn’t a dumb or malicious person. The rookie member of the legislature hasn’t ascended to cabinet, but he’s the parliamentary assistant to the finance minister (no small role) and has previously offered private member’s bills that address real problems in thoughtful and creative ways.

His latest, however, is a turkey. And it’s not a good time of year for poultry.

Following Honolulu’s lead, Baker introduced Bill 171 on Monday. The “Phones Down, Heads Up” act would impose fines on any pedestrian operating a cellphone or music player while crossing the road. The intent, he told reporters, was to raise awareness of the need for everyone on the road, including pedestrians, to be mindful of their surroundings.

“We use our smartphones all the time, and when we do, we’re absorbed, focused, and distracted,” Baker told reporters at Queen’s Park on Monday. “Experts tell us we’re more likely to be hurt or injured or killed if we use a smartphone while crossing the road.”

Baker’s own numbers — taken from the Ontario coroner’s 2012 review of pedestrian road deaths — show that only 7 per cent of pedestrians killed by motorists were distracted by electronic devices. A child in elementary school could figure out that Baker’s bill ignores the other 93 per cent of fatalities. The coroner’s report found that a greater percentage of people are killed when using mobility aids like walkers and motorized scooters, but it’s unlikely that Baker intends to penalize the elderly through a separate piece of legislation.

The more significant causes of pedestrian fatalities are well-known, and not all of them are solely on motorists: pedestrians crossing mid-block or against the signal made up 31 and 12 per cent of fatalities, respectively. But motorist speed is still the single biggest factor associated with pedestrian deaths: two-thirds of all fatalities occur on roads where drivers travel faster than 50 kilometres an hour.

So why would Ontario need a new law to penalize pedestrians for conduct that basically results in a rounding error? Because, Baker says, “If it saves even one life,” it’s worth it.

This is silly. The government could do plenty of things to save “even one life.” But you don’t have to be a libertarian to realize that’s an absurd threshold for policymaking. Plenty of policies could save one person, but would be wasteful, needlessly intrusive, or both. Great powers don’t fight small wars, and sensible governments don’t bring the full force of the law to bear against tiny problems.

And the problem may be even tinier than we think: Global News reported last year that rates of distracted walking have remained basically the same over the past 20 years — smartphones don’t seem to have had a noticeable impact. And the Globe and Mail cites U.S. data that suggests electronic devices are implicated in only one-tenth of 1 per cent of all pedestrian fatalities.


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Baker’s proposal may sound like a joke, but in practice, it could be much more sinister. He explicitly compared his bill to laws prohibiting jaywalking — just another measure designed to ensure road safety. But jaywalking laws aren’t neutral: they were created explicitly to clear the roads for motorists in the 20th century, and in the 21st, they’re still enforced in ways that disproportionately affect minorities and other vulnerable groups. To put it another way, the government just passed rules to prevent police from needlessly hassling Black men on the street, and Baker’s bill would hand that power right back to them.

(Asked specifically about this, Baker said, “The solution to that problem is to take the steps the government of Ontario has already taken with regards to carding, to make sure police are trained to approach people in a non-discriminatory way.” It’s unfortunate, then, that at the press conference all the pictures used to illustrate distracted walking featured people of colour.)

The good news is that Baker’s bill seems dead on arrival: it has won few supporters, even in the Liberal party. Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca said Baker’s bill won’t be expedited as government business. Premier Kathleen Wynne told reporters she thought Ontario could use a discussion about culture change around smartphones (fair enough), while both of the opposition parties said it was at best a distraction, and at worst, victim-blaming.

If Baker ends up trying to move it forward on his own, the bill is almost certainly dead: he can’t bring it to a vote until March under the rules of the legislature, and that leaves practically no time to hurry it through committee and return it for a final vote before the election makes everything moot. And then there’s the obvious question of whether the Liberals even want this bill associated with their brand in the months before they ask their predominantly urban supporters to give them another chance to govern.

One Liberal did defend Baker’s intentions, if not necessarily his methods, this week: Tourism, Culture, and Sport Minister Eleanor McMahon, whose husband was killed over a decade ago by a careless truck driver, says she doesn’t think Baker intention is to blame victims — although she understands why pedestrian and cycling advocates are concerned.

“I know that’s how it can feel; I understand,” she said to reporters Monday. “I share their concerns and live with those in my heart, because I’m in the same boat.”

“I don’t see this as victim-blaming — I see this as an opportunity for dialogue. Whenever we table a bill, it’s an opportunity for dialogue and input,” McMahon said. Nevertheless, she wouldn’t commit to supporting Baker’s bill if it comes up to a vote.

If the government wants a public education campaign about the dangers of texting on busy streets, it should go ahead and launch one. Make horrifying ads, like the WSIB did not too long ago. Teach schoolchildren safety tips in the classroom, and run commercials for their parents in prime time. But Baker’s law is the wrong approach and focuses on the wrong target: if it even makes it to second reading, MPPs should vote no.

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