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!

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