Wear your earbuds in the street, get fined?

Lawmakers in California, Virginia, and Oregon are proposing various bans on mobile devices, while New York considers banning the use of electronic devices while crossing streets.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
Should this pedestrian be fined? Symic/Flickr

For some lawmakers, Cathy Cruz Marrero's now-infamous fall into a fountain while texting couldn't have come at a better time.

In California, State Sen. Joe Simitian has reintroduced a bill that would fine cyclists $20 for texting. In Oregon, State Rep. Michael Schaufler wants to fine cyclists $90 for wearing headphones or earbuds. In Virginia, lawmakers are considering whether to broaden such a ban to include any handheld communication device.

And in New York, a bill before the legislature's transportation committee would ban the use of electronic devices while crossing streets.

This is the second time State Sen. Carl Kruger has introduced this legislation to stem what he calls "tuning in and tuning out." As if to prove his point, a 21-year-old man listening to an iPod Nano in a crosswalk on Madison Avenue in New York last December was killed when a Mack truck backed into him and dragged him 30 feet. Presumably, the man did not hear the beeping of the truck in reverse.

The whirlwind of legislation comes at a time when pedestrian fatalities were up for the first time in four years in the first half of 2010, according to a report just released by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which also reports that pedestrian fatalities account for about 12 percent of overall traffic deaths in the United States. Meanwhile, researchers in Washington and in Illinois have been exploring the nature of distraction while walking using cell phones.

Sen. Kruger's bill calls for a ban in streets of cities with populations of a million or more people. But the Governors Highway Safety Association reports that in the three biggest states with the biggest cities (New York, California, and Texas), pedestrian fatalities actually fell. Arizona (up 21), Florida (up 36), Oklahoma (up 16), Oregon (up 18), and North Carolina (up 17) saw the largest jumps in pedestrian fatalities over the previous year.

While restricting the use of distracting devices in cars and on bicycles has become more commonplace across the States, legislation targeting pedestrians and joggers crosses a new line. (In Arkansas, a proposal to ban pedestrians from wearing headphones over both ears was met with such outrage that a legislator withdrew it altogether this week.)

Setting aside the obvious debate over whether a person should retain the basic right to walk or jog distracted, the next questions include whether this kind of ban will work to save lives, and if so, at what cost?

If the bill in New York passes, these questions will be answered in due time. Until then, expect to see a range of legal questions about the finer details of the ban, including what, exactly, constitutes a street, and a crossing of the street, and which electronic devices, if any, may be excused from said ban.