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Curbing cellphone zombies on the street

A bus avoiding a pedestrian glued to his cellphone while walking on a bus lane. Some places in the US have made it illegal to cross streets while on a phone, texting or listening to music with buds in both ears. The mayor of New York has said he is open to the idea, too.

SHOULD you be reading this on some electronic device while crossing the street, please stop. Right now. Traffic may be swirling around you. Your inattentiveness puts you in harm's way.

And if by chance you're in Montclair, California, while reading this and crossing the street, you'd best keep an eye out not only for cars but also for police. You're breaking the law.

Officials in Montclair, in Southern California, decided that their 39,000 residents needed a heads-up - literally. There were accidents that resulted in part from pedestrians burying their noses in smartphones with their minds miles away.

Something had to be done about these "cellphone zombies", Edward Starr, the city manager, said. So Montclair made it illegal to cross streets while on a phone, texting or listening to music with buds in both ears. Fines of US$100, and as much as US$500 for repeat offences, will go into effect in August.

Other places have had the same idea. Honolulu enacted a comparable law months ago. Rexburg, Idaho, a town about the same size as Montclair, adopted a similar ban in 2011 after the shock of having five pedestrians die. It hasn't had a single pedestrian fatality since.

Legislation along the same lines has been contemplated in several states and major cities. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he, too, was open to the idea.

Maybe it's time for every municipality to get serious about distracted walking, as it's called, even though distracted driving is plainly a bigger concern. This is the belief - theologically held - by many motorists that they can read email, text friends, call the office and all the while stay fully focused on the road.

They're delusional. They're also dangerous.

It is perhaps not a shock that in this age of cellphone zombies, traffic deaths in the United States have risen, after years of steady declines thanks to safer cars and improved road design. The 2016 toll was 37,461, or 14 per cent higher than that in 2014. The final tally for 2017 is expected to be no more heartening.

The increase in pedestrian deaths, which account for 16 per cent of all traffic fatalities, is even more discouraging. There were 5,987 of them in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Expectations are that 2017 will end up with a toll at least that high. That's a rise of 22 per cent from the 4,910 registered in 2014.

No doubt, inattentive driving is to blame in large measure. But distracted walking is a likely factor, too.

Enforcing an ordinance like Montclair's won't be easy. You can't put police on every corner. And as sure as a sunrise, some people will wail about personal freedoms being violated. But there's a social contract to be observed.

When you venture forth in public, you assume certain responsibilities, be it preserving your own life or having regard for others. Even in non-lethal situations, who isn't driven crazy when blocked on the sidewalk by people ambling so s-l-o-w-l-y, with eyes glued to their screens?

Mr Starr says people in Montclair seem to get it, including youngsters who deem smartphones a birthright.

"Students are actually pretty understanding, and even tell us this was really needed," he said of the new rules. That's because they know their lives matter. NYT