Whew! Sen. John Liu’s Bill to Criminalize Walking Is Likely DOA

If roads were designed for people instead of for cars, the issue of "distracted pedestrians" would not even exist. Photo: Duncan Harris
If roads were designed for people instead of for cars, the issue of "distracted pedestrians" would not even exist. Photo: Duncan Harris

It’s going to take an upstate lawmaker to stop a bill that no real New Yorker would ever have introduced — a proposal to embolden car culture by punishing so-called “distracted pedestrians” that was, in fact, unveiled by Queens pol last week.

Fortunately, the chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, Buffalo Senator Tim Kennedy, told the New York Post over the weekend that he opposes the bill by his Queens colleague John Liu to “prohibit a pedestrian from using a portable electronic device while crossing a roadway.”

“As someone who has rallied for significant pedestrian safety reforms for years, I prioritize the protection and security of all New Yorkers,” Kennedy told the Tabloid of Record, which has led the charge against the bill. “But it appears to me as though this is an overreach of government. I don’t support the concept in its current form.”

The fact that Kennedy has jumped in at the last minute does not erase the trauma unleashed last week when Liu introduced the bill in Albany’s upper house that would subject pedestrians to $50 fines — increasing to $250 for the third offense — for using any handheld device with mobile data access while crossing a roadway.

The near-immediate outrage over the bill resulted from Liu’s effort to place some burden of safety on the person partaking of the safest mode of transportation — one that was virtually unchanged since the dawn of civilization — instead of on the person behind the wheel of a 30,000-pound vehicle, said Charles Komanoff, an energy and transportation economist.

The real problem.
The real problem.

“This is such an atrocious idea — and it’s of a piece with [Liu’s] backwards take on ‘safety’ that ‘problematizes’ the inherently safe modes, walking and cycling,” said Komanoff. “It’s the windshield perspective cloaked in the phony concern of a white lab coat. He ignores the myriad harms of discouraging walking and cycling by making them less convenient, easy and ‘normal.’”

For virtually all of human history, someone could walk from point A to point B in any manner he or she chose — and certainly without worrying about getting hit by a speeding car. But the Automobile Age changed the very idea of being a pedestrian, and led to roadways increasingly designed for cars, rather than for people. As a result, motorists would frequently hit pedestrians, which is why the auto industry led the effort to criminalize walking, promoting “jaywalking” laws that remain on the books to this day.

Liu’s bill is basically a version of jaywalking for the 21st century because it “victim-blames” everyday pedestrians who cross the street, said Cristina Furlong of Make Queens Safer.

“I could compare it to jaywalking in the fact that we’re in New York City, which is the most pedestrian-friendly and walkable city in the United States,” said Furlong. “We’re not telling drivers their behavior is killing people — it’s just promoting this culture.” 

Senator John Liu wants to fine pedestrians who cross the street while texting.
Senator John Liu wants to fine pedestrians who cross the street while texting.

Liu defended his legislation and said it in no way would absolve reckless drivers — who have killed at least 70 people so far this year, while so-called “distracted” pedestrians have killed none — it would just make everyone on the road look out for themselves.

“While we expect drivers to yield to pedestrians, everybody does have some responsibility to keep themselves safe,” said Liu, who also served as City Comptroller nearly a decade ago. “It does not let drivers off the hook for their responsibility.”

Liu, who moved to Queens when he was 5, said he’s personally seen people risk their lives crossing the street while texting, but it was really parents in his district who begged him to do something about it.

“It’s a problem that my constituents also talked to me about, including parents who want their kids fined,” said Liu.

But many who live in Liu’s district aren’t buying it, and aren’t willing to give in to Big Auto since it’s actually drivers who need to be told to slow down and pay attention so they don’t kill people. Plus, if Liu is going to speak of his constituents’ stated needs, he should also recall that many of his constituents are trying to get parts of the district pedestrianized so that cars can’t hurt people.

“There is an idea that Eastern Queens has a car culture that blames pedestrians and cyclists for all problems. Although a vocal minority feel that way, the majority of our residents often walk, bike, or bus around town,” said John Kelly. “This bill blames the victim’s inattention, but the danger is only created when the driver brings a speeding car to the situation.”

Liu said he introduced the bill after his colleague in the lower house, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, asked him to because they are both sponsors on another piece of legislation in their respective houses to lower the current blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05.

Ortiz similarly defended the bill and said it’s purpose is to “break the culture” of people who use their cellphones while crossing the street in order to keep everyone safe.

“This bill is about public safety and quality of of life and protection,” said Ortiz, who is assistant speaker in the Assembly. “This bill specifically addresses the common sense that people are not using crossing the street.”

Not likely. Many pedestrians told the Post that the bill wouldn’t stop them from texting while crossing the street. Plus, there are also myriad other ways someone can be distracted — and those have been around since paper was invented, said another one of Liu’s constituents.

“Why don’t we ticket people who are reading a book while they cross the street, not looking to the left or to the right,” said Albert Galatan. “This is definitely misplaced.”

Similar laws to what Liu and Ortiz proposed have recently been enacted in Honolulu, and Montclair, Calif, but it’s too early to know the ramifications. There is evidence, though, to show that most pedestrians are injured after merely tripping over themselves, according to Peter Lyndon Jacobsen, an expert in pedestrian and traffic safety. One study found that a whopping 72 percent of 310 cases involving an injured pedestrian resulted because that person had fallen.

“There are some injuries associated with being on the phone, but most involve falls as the primary mechanism,” said Jacobson. “The evidence is really clear that driving while talking on the phone to others endangers other people, where as there’s not much evidence that talking on the phone while walking is a risk except to yourself.”

Jacobson likened Liu’s bill to the argument that cyclists should wear helmets and that those in cars must wear seat belts — because not doing so does not endanger anyone else. 

“These people aren’t endangering others. I want my police department to protect me from other people’s violence,” said Jacobson. “If you want to protect pedestrians, if that’s the goal of this senator, then attack the danger not the victim.”

And clearly, two cars involved in a crash would do much more damage than two pedestrians.

“If distracted walking is so dangerous, Senator Liu should ask himself what would happen if two distracted pedestrians were to collide with one another,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo.

Update: An earlier version of this story referred to Charles Komanoff as “Charlie.” We have no idea how that happened — but it won’t happen again!

  • Liu has always been, and remains, a disaster. This is the guy who tried to stop the construction of the AirTrain, and made excuses for the terrorists who planted explosives in the trestles.

  • Urbanely

    Regardless of cars, people really should pay more attention when they are walking. It’s ridiculous watching people text while walking up and down stairs or meandering across the sidewalk because they are so focused on their phones (or books! Chambers St on the 4/5/6 is a magnet for people reading books while walking on the stairs).

  • Andrew

    There are so many reasons to criticize this proposed law, but I feel like many people miss the most obvious one. The rationale behind the proposal is that people who are using their phones while legally crossing the street aren’t sufficiently aware of their surroundings, and are therefore in greater danger because they’re less likely to be able to jump out of the way when a driver fails to yield. Think about how absurd is to fine the pedestrian in this situation.

    If the argument is that pedestrians who are looking at their phones are more likely to enter the crosswalk when they don’t have the walk sign, then there’s no need for this “distracted walking” law because we already have jaywalking laws on the books.

  • redbike

    Walking is not a crime.

    But.

    Meanderthals and obliviots are a problem.

    How about explicitly denying oblivots and meanderthals any cause of action if something bad happens while they’re not paying attention? The “something bad” may not be — entirely — their fault, but their lack of situational awareness sure as hell contributed.

  • coolkavo

    Ought to institute a facial recognition system for all of Manhattan.

  • I still don’t understand how we haven’t found any footage of Liu crossing the street while looking at his phone. If everyone was on alert, this probably would take all of a day.

  • The funny thing is there is zero evidence for your claims.

    But it sure is easy to believe and sure makes it easy to pretend like “everyone is equal” or some idiotic bullshit.

  • Who cares?

    Why do you care if some idiot walks into a step and trips? They’ll just learn a lesson.

    The reason why texting and driving is an issue and texting and walking isn’t (besides the physics of the fact that walking is so much slower than driving that full attention is not needed and thus actual harm is far less likely), is that while you shouldn’t care if an idiot trips while focusing on their phone, you should care if that same idiot gets in an SUV and murders your entire family while focused on their phone.

    This obsession with “distracted walking” is nothing more than concern trolling.

  • Urbanely

    I don’t care if they want to fall into something and trip. I DO care that they selfishly decide to block egress and ingress at train stations and impede foot traffic on narrow sidewalks.

    Texting and driving is a huge issue. I’m not at all denying or diminishing it. But I’m not sure why these two issues need to be mutually exclusive. We can demand heavy penalties for people who drive and text…and ALSO ask pedestrians to do better with respect to other pedestrians.

  • redbike

    Zero evidence

    Next time you share public space, look around you. I know; it’s a novel concept.

    Being a vulnerable user of public space (I’m one too) means sharing responsibilities as well as sharing space.

    Sharing public space, I should be aware of you; I can’t be aware for you.

  • Isabella Chu

    I’d actually be ok with this fine if drivers were fined proportionally for using phones or listening to the radio, putting on makeup etc. So if a 70kg pedestrian pays $50 that would mean a 4,000 lb SUV driver pays…hang on, I need my calculator.

  • Honolulu Hawaii saw a spike in pedestrian deaths, passed a texting while crossing law in 2017, and in 2018 pedestrian deaths doubled. The head of HPD Traffic says he doesn’t even know if any of the victims was using a phone. Most of the deaths were the elderly demographic, a group not known for walking around with eyes glued to a phone.

    You can look around all you like, you can think that makes things “sure as hell”, and your misguided judgement can still lead you to wrong conclusions and stupid, pointless, victim blaming laws.

  • Wilfried84

    Oh, Liu. Why are you such a disappointment? And why do you still have a career? As Comptroller, he was the alarmist who predicted blood in the streets and huge liabilities during the pre-Citi Bike bikelash. Not to mention campaign finance irregularities that landed his staffers in jail.

  • Joe R.

    That’s really my biggest pet peeve about this. I don’t care if someone stares at their phone on a mostly empty sidewalk or other place where they don’t get in people’s way. I do care when they’re texting or whatever while oblivious to people to who need to get past them. In fact, I think one big reason for the spike in subway delays is people not getting on or off trains as quickly as they used to due to being impeded by people staring at their phones.

  • Joe R.

    The rationale behind the proposal is that people who are using their phones while legally crossing the street aren’t sufficiently aware of their surroundings, and are therefore in greater danger because they’re less likely to be able to jump out of the way when a driver fails to yield.

    I hate to say it, but I really think that’s the primary reason for this proposal. I’ve heard drivers complain about exactly that—they’re turning and are mad someone doesn’t get out of their way because they’re looking at their phone. I tell these people it doesn’t matter. They have the legal right-of-way over turning cars. You would have to wait regardless of whether they’re on their phone or not. Sadly, for about half the people this doesn’t register.

  • Joe R.

    I still have a letter from his office from around 1999 where he claimed to be an “avid cyclist”. I had written numerous people in charge complaining about a sidewalk cycling ticket I had gotten at 10 PM on a completely empty sidewalk while returning a rented video tape. Besides the usual “the law is the law” response, Liu also felt the need to mention he was a cyclist, as if that somehow made any of this better for me. I guess it was too much to hope he might either help get my fine refunded, change the law, and/or have the police enforce the law more sensibly (i.e. people riding fast on crowded sidewalks deserve tickets, those riding on empty ones late nights should be left alone).

    At least now we’re really seeing his true colors. No more pretending he’s a friend of anybody not in a car.

  • If you want to drive a few twitter nails into the coffin of this idiotic proposal….

    Honolulu Passes Texting While Walking Law 2017, Pedestrian Deaths Double 2018. City’s Top Traffic Cop Sez No Evidence Dead Peds Used Phones. S05746 S05746 Pointless VictimBlaming. @BillMagnarelli @SenKennedy @CarlHeastie @AndreaSCousins @Transalt https://www.citylab.com/life/2019/05/texting-safety-tips-distracted-walking-laws-nyc-vision-zero/589606/

  • Frank Kotter

    This quote from Kennedy shows that even people who could become actual effective leaders on pedestrian safety, have no idea how to accomplish that. The problem is ‘overreach’?? Wow.

  • Thomas Moore

    Do you even walk on the streets of NYC? It’s not about distracted people tripping. I hope they do and learn their lessons. It’s about sharing public space with respect for other users. People who have to text on the sidewalks about what they ate for lunch force other pedestrians who are not distracted to walk around them. I’ve seen people on their cell phones walk from between parked cars expecting the world to revolve around them without looking up for traffic. I’ve had distracted people walk into me. They can injure other people through their selfishness and should be accountable.

  • PDiddy

    Were you injured when some dude bumped into you? Show us your hospital pictures.

  • PDiddy

    Didn’t you know? “Avid cyclist” means he’s a weekend warrior who cycles on a path around a park which is segregated from vehicle traffic.

  • Awesome!!! this post..

  • jcwconsult

    NHTSA data shows about 60% of pedestrian fatalities involve some action or inaction by the pedestrian that raised their risks of becoming a fatality. This is NOT victim blaming, it is exactly the same issue when drivers don’t fasten their seat belts and sharply raise their fatality risks in accidents. Safety requires some actions by both pedestrians and drivers.
    James C Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Thomas Moore

    You don’t have to be hospitalized to be injured. You’re missing the bigger point. Why are people allowed to walk around oblivious to others around them? When you’re in the real world and not the cyber world you need to pay attention.

  • PDiddy

    I’m sorry but I just don’t agree with you. Part of the fun of a large dense metro is the crowdedness of it all.

    And, when you live in a crowded metro, people will sometimes bump into you. You’ll have old people slowing your own pace and all sorts of other minor annoyances.

    Suck it up. Or if you dislike it, go live in a 1000 people/sq mile metro. You can walk on the sidewalks without ever seeing another human soul!

  • Thomas Moore

    I’m a native NYer and love living in the City. I don’t mind people bumping into me accidentally, but people walking around texting might as well be blindfolded. They are rude and shouldn’t expect the world to move around them. Living in such congested conditions requires we be more aware of our surroundings, not less.

  • PDiddy

    Look at last paragraph of my previous response.

  • Because why do we need a law about it. Do you need a law against everything a person might do. How about a law against daydreaming? They might do that in your way too.

    Laws should be used to protect the public from harm, not annoyance.

    And by the way, when you bring them up at the same time, you equate the two things.

  • Can you drop the bullshit.

    The fact is, you want to legislate against something you find annoying, not dangerous.

    The law should not be used to protect the public from annoying.

  • That’s hilarious…

    No…subway delays are not due to distracted walking.

  • If you want to provide evidence that distracted walking has lead to an increase in injuries, feel free to provide it.

    I’ve looked, it isn’t there, it just isn’t a real risk.

    “looking around” doesn’t prove anything.

  • Thomas Moore

    Nope. This is my City. The plp who can’t learn to live with some respect for others around them are the ones who should move to the boondocks.

  • Thomas Moore

    Law already addresses annoying quality of life issues. Among others, Noise complaints are the #1 complaint in this city and there are laws governing it. Being distracted while walking is dangerous. People have walked into cellars and what happens when a 250lb person watching YouTube cute cat videos crashes into a 100lb 80 y.o.?

  • Yes, noise complaints are common, and yes, noise is legislated, frankly, I’m very dubious of most noise complaints, but I’m happy to discuss where the line should be drawn.

    The line however, miles and miles away from texting and walking, they’re no more “annoying” than a blind person walking. And worse, most who want to discuss it, want to equate it with texting and driving.

    Now, can you also drop the bullshit of desperately trying to contrive a situation where it could be some kind of fake dangerous.

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