Road safety is a two-way street

Ontario’s proposed ‘Phones Down, Heads Up Act’ is not a case of victim blaming – it’s necessary

Carlo Javier // Editor-in-Chief

Penalizing pedestrians for crossing a street while looking at their phones may seem like a trivial piece of legislation, but the bill proposed by an Ontario politician is a necessary step towards safer streets.

This past October, Yvan Baker, a Liberal Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) living in West Toronto was met with criticism and contempt for his proposal of the “Phones Down, Heads Up Act” – a bill that would implement fines for distracted walking. According to a summary first reported by the Toronto Star, if legislated, the bill would prohibit the use of any “wireless communication device, electronic entertainment device or other prescribed device” when crossing the street.

Offenders will receive a $50 ticket on the first incident, which would then increase to $75 on the second offence and further rise to $125 on the third and ensuing contraventions.

Since its reporting, Baker’s proposal has routinely been denounced by safety advocate groups such as Walk Toronto. Much of the criticism Baker has faced centre on how his proposal shifts the focus of road safety to pedestrians, especially when laws that keep motorists in check already exist. Moreover, opponents of the proposed bill cite motorist-based issues as the primary cause of pedestrian injuries and that Baker’s suggestion does not achieve anything other than victim blaming. “You have the right to cross in any way you want to and it’s up to drivers to not interfere with you and not to hit you,” Dylan Reid, spokesperson of Walk Toronto told the Toronto Star.

What Reid and other demonstrators seem to forget is that road
safety is not a one-way
street. Motorists are
not the only ones who
need to be cognizant
of their surroundings,
and pedestrians are
just as liable to be
unaware of incoming
traffic. Just because
laws already exist to
ensure that the onus
to be alert is on the
driver, doesn’t mean
that pedestrians should just waltz across a crosswalk without a care for incoming traffic.

According to a 2012 provincial coroner’s report presented by Baker, an estimated 20 per cent of pedestrian-related injuries and deaths involved distracted walking. The report, as relayed to the Globe and Mail, specifically pointed out the use of cellphones, MP3 players and other mobile devices as constant variables in injuries and fatalities.

However, a more recent 2015 report by Toronto Public Health showed that in 67 per cent of serious crashes, pedestrians were proven to have had the right of way, suggesting that motorists are still the main cause of crashes and that distracted walking is not as dangerous as played out to be. Yet waiting for definitive statistics that distracted walking is problematic is the type of apathy that leads to injuries and deaths that could have so easily been prevented.

“Phones Down, Heads Up Act” came just mere days after a similar law was legislated in Honolulu. The Hawaiian capital took national stage late in October after passing a law that would allow the police to fine pedestrians with a $35 ticket for distracted walking. Per the New York Times, Honolulu was reported to be the first major city to legislate such an ordinance – starting discussion on whether other cities, particular metropolitan areas, should follow suit.

Amidst the discussion, the CBC reported that Constable Clint Stibbe, a spokesperson for Toronto Police stood against the idea of a distracted-walking bill, stating that there is no need for legislation for common sense. Though Stibbe makes a strong case, his argument might be the very reason why the “Phones Down, Heads Up Act” should be legislated. Common sense has become so rare, and if pedestrians are unable to look away from their mobile devices for the few seconds that can be the difference between life, injury and death – then maybe government intervention is needed, even if just to resuscitate common sense among some people.

Put forward as a private member’s bill, Baker’s proposal has very little chance of getting legislated. As per the Parliament of Canada website, only 229 proposed private member’s bills were approved in the span of 98 years, dating from 1910 to 2008.

Despite the low chances of legislation, the importance of Baker’s bill cannot be understated. Distracted walking may not be as big a problem now, but waiting for it to become one is just as dangerous as blindly crossing a street.

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