by Cedric Hughes, Barrister & Solicitor with regular weekly contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.B.   

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Cell Phone Zombies

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In May 2016, Road Rules introduced its readers to the term ‘smombie’—short for smartphone zombies—newly coined from Germany for people whose habitual focus on their smartphones renders them oblivious to their surroundings.

You might think the obvious safety risk of such behaviour would render it so rare as to be unworthy of a ‘coined term.’  And you would think the risk it poses to others would prompt enough pushback to effectively deter repetition.  However, statistical trends and social science research suggest otherwise.

Although data indicating a direct link between smombie-ism and pedestrian injury and fatality remains in short supply, the US Governors Highway Safety Association recently identified smartphone use as a possible factor in the 9% increase from 2015 to 2016 in US pedestrian fatalities, to 5,987—the highest since 1990.

And, far from condemning such behaviour, as previously noted, a study from the Pew Research Centre on US smartphone ‘etiquette’ has indicated that “77% of adults regard phone use while walking down the street as “generally OK”, with 75% also saying ‘OK’ to smartphone use on public transit.”

One response to smombie-ism in Germany has been innovative road design.  In Augsburg, Bavaria, for example, recognition that normal traffic lights are not in the line of sight of many pedestrians these days prompted the embedding of strips of lights in the pavement at two tram stops.  When a tram is approaching, the pavement lights flash red to grab smombies’ attention.  Similarly, in Chongquing, China one of its major sidewalks has been separated into two lanes, one designated for smombies by pavement graphics warning "Cellphones walk in this lane at your own risk."

Now, smombie-ism is prompting legislated ‘solutions.’  As of October 25th, 2017, Honolulu, Hawaii has become the first city in the world to penalize ‘zombie walkers’—the ‘Hawaiian term’ for smombies.  Brandon Elefante, a city councillor who first proposed the law, which “allows police to fine pedestrians up to $35 for viewing their electronic devices while crossing streets; repeat offenders … up to $99” calls this a “milestone legislation that sets the bar high for safety.”

Mr. Elefante reportedly said, “Pedestrians will share the responsibility for their safety with motorists.”  Other jurisdictions may soon follow this lead.  In September, San Mateo County, California unanimously passed a resolution prohibiting cellphone usage while crossing streets. David Canepa, who introduced the measure noted that while state law governs such issues “it [is] an important springboard. … People understand the value of public safety.  As children… we are taught to look both ways when crossing a street, but you can’t look both ways when you’re looking down and texting.”

At the time of writing, Ontario MPP Yvan Baker has just announced he will introduce a "zombie bill" to target distracted walking called the Phones Down, Heads Up Act imposing fines for anyone caught using their cellphone or any electronic device while crossing the street.  Mr. Baker says if the bill becomes law, it will increase road safety by encouraging pedestrians to put down their electronic devices or risk fines ranging from $50 for a first offence to $125 for a third offence. 

Cedric Hughes

huges & company law corporation vancouver


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