“Distracted walking” laws make no sense

Dylan Reid

The spectre of “distracted walking” apparently haunts our streets. The scare has been raised again through a private member’s bill proposal by Ontario Liberal MPP Yvan Baker, which would impose fines on people crossing the street holding a cellphone, or using some other “electronic entertainment system” (presumably including iPods and such), although not, weirdly, on people already talking on the phone when they start crossing.

Lloyd Alter, Matt Elliott and many others have already pointed out how these kinds of laws are a red herring that misdirects attention towards the victims and away from the factors that create danger (driver inattention, bad infrastructure), and how these laws are not supported by the actual statistics.

However, I’d also like to bring to the debate the way that these laws make no sense in terms of the rules of the road.

Let’s imagine a pedestrian who is, foolishly, crossing the road while texting. There are two possible scenarios:

A) The pedestrian is crossing without the right of way (e.g. the light is red or there are cars coming in a mid-block crossing).

In that case, the pedestrian is already breaking the law. There are laws and bylaws in place that forbid this dangerous behaviour, and the pedestrian can be charged under them. There’s no need for an additional law.

Which means the law mainly applies when:

B) the pedestrian is crossing with the right of way (e.g. they started crossing with the walking man signal, or they arrived at a 4-way stop before a car).

In this case, the pedestrian has the right to cross under any and all circumstances, and it’s up to drivers not to hit them. If there is a collision, it is clearly the driver’s responsibility. It doesn’t matter what the pedestrian was or was not doing.

Of course the pedestrian should pay attention, because there are some aggressive or irresponsible drivers who might endanger them, and it’s smart to do everything possible to avoid getting hit. But it’s not up to the pedestrian, it’s up to the driver to avoid a collision.

What these laws specifically ignore is that some pedestrians cannot look out for bad drivers when crossing with the right of way. People who are visually impaired and walk with a cane or a guide dog cannot “watch out” for bad drivers. They have to rely on the law that says that drivers have to yield to pedestrians who have the right of way.

That law also protects people who could watch out but aren’t, whether it’s because they are texting or for any other reason. It may be irritating to some drivers that some pedestrians aren’t showing fear, but that’s irrelevant. On Newstalk 1010, host Jerry Agar asked me if pedestrians should cross the streets blindfolded. Not by choice, of course — but in an Ontario that conforms to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which says that people with a disability should be able to navigate our streets safely, that is precisely the test — you should be able to safely walk across the street blindfolded when you have the right of way.

“Distracted walking” laws like this one create the impression that pedestrians somehow share responsibility with drivers if they are hit while crossing with the right of way. They do not — the responsibility lies solely with the driver, and the laws needs to reflect that fact.


  1. First a distracted driving law and now distracted walking law. Why not just force manufacturers to come up with a design in phones / internet so that if the unit detects a 2 mile per hour speed in your phone’s GPS, then it will automatically shut down the phone or internet and will turn on again when the unit detect a speed no higher than 1 m.p.h. Simple and easy solution.

  2. A detail worth including is that all lights and many pedestrian cross walks are timed. Often, pedestrians who are glued to their phone don’t consider how much time is left on the timer, blindly following others and entering a crosswalk late in a light sequence, and this is when cars could be turning or other dangerous scenarios are occuring. Just because the light is still green, it doesn’t mean it will be for long, and this is an unsafe time to start crossing.

  3. In looking through the City of Toronto’s material on moving Toronto, I notice all the pedestrian points are lower than those for cars and bicycles. The more the city prioritizes cars at intersections, the more accidents with pedestrians there will be. Drivers begin to think they’re entitled to priority. This “pedestrians share the blame” thinking furthers that entitlement as does advanced turn signals, pedestrian crossings that only work if one presses a button more than 6 seconds before the light changes, and the TTC’s penchant for far side transit stops.

    What happened to looking out for the most vulnerable? That’s the law on the waterways.

  4. I think the government gets a big F if they can’t provide proper transit to get people out of their cars they should build cat walks or bridges for the people to move freely . But all need to pay attention sadly that is the world we live in 😳

  5. Joseph Ficker,

    Your proposal would stop people from using their phone while on a train, or while a passenger in a vehicle, or while on an escalator in a mall.


    Traffic code in Ontario says if you enter the intersection while the light is green, you have the right-of-way to clear the intersection. Are you saying drivers don’t have to follow the traffic code, and let those already in the intersection clear the intersection?

  6. I think this is more of a problem with people texting while walking on stairs in crowded places like a mall or subway station which is just rude and ignorant. At any given time at a subway there will probably be at least 50 people behind you on the stairs so it more about being spacially aware, Often i have seen people stop dead in their tracks midway down the stairs to text which causes everyone behind them to have to stop and go around them. Ridiculous.
    Just wear a shirt that says “I do not yeild to text walkers” so when they bump into you flash them the shirt. People these days are just so self involved they could care less. The TV used to be called the idiot box now it pertains to smart phones.

  7. If there’s a don’t walk signal for pedestrians, then they cannot enter if it is solid or flashing, even if the light is green.

    Pedestrian – green light
    (23) Subject to subsections (24) and (27), a pedestrian approaching a traffic control signal showing a circular green indication or a straight-ahead green arrow indication and facing the indication may cross the roadway. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 144 (23).

    Pedestrian control signals – don’t walk
    (27) No pedestrian approaching pedestrian control signals and facing a solid or flashing “don’t walk” indication shall enter the roadway. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 144 (27).

    Pedestrian right of way
    (28) Every pedestrian who lawfully enters a roadway in order to cross may continue the crossing as quickly as reasonably possible despite a change in the indication he or she is facing and, for purposes of the crossing, has the right of way over vehicles.

  8. Thank you Dylan, I was thinking the exact same thing!

    I was almost plowed down at a Stop sign but I noticed a car that very far away going very fast. I backed up so slightly because the “Deer in Headlights” concept is real and there would be absolutely no way to move if the car were closer. I could barely move and I only barely got out of the way (it brushed past me and my arms banged along the top of the car). The older man crossing the street in the opposite direction that hadn’t made the step off the sidewalk would not have been so lucky.

    The only way to almost guarantee that you can cross safely is if the cars are already stopped – but how can anyone operate like this? I am now terrified in this city to cross the street with my twin stroller, especially when cars are making right turns in my direction. Why is it my job to police drivers? I’ve asked the city to ticket drivers on my street or just observe since there are 2 crosswalks and a number of senior homes and daycares, but they say they have “no resources”. I know their budget goes up, but they only seem to use this money to pointlessly bust marijuana stores. Crime is down but traffic fatalities are up and they are choosing to ignore it.

  9. Somehow the author of the opinion piece and some respondents got it all wrong. Whoever has the right of way may be dead right when run over, followed with a trip to the morgue. Both parties in any traffic situation have an obligation to pay attention. That sure applies to visually not impaired folks who just can’t keep their face out of the little dumb screen.
    Also, could I have run over the guy who walked off the sidewalk into my way, although I had the green light and therefore the right of way (and right to kill?) and he did not? The guy with the wheels would have been guilty since I could not have proven the right of way.
    As in Tallia’s response, is she pushing her twin stroller off the curb ahead of herself on a green light without making damn sure an offending vehicle is stopped and/or aware of her? Parents pushing strollers ahead of themselves into a potentially dangerous situation makes my hair stand up every time I see it, which is far too often.
    Far too many have also changed the traffic rules for their own convenience. How many drivers still come to a full stop at a red light or stop sign before turning right and how many pedestrians don’t walk on the “do not walk” signal? Not many I see.

  10. “A) The pedestrian is crossing without the right of way (e.g. the light is red or there are cars coming in a mid-block crossing). In that case, the pedestrian is already breaking the law. There are laws and bylaws in place that forbid this dangerous behaviour, and the pedestrian can be charged under them. There’s no need for an additional law.”

    This is like arguing that since there are already laws against speeding, running red lights and stop signs, driving the wrong way up one-way streets, etc., that there’s not need for an additional law to punish people for doing so while drunk, or stoned, or, yes, nowadays, texting.

    It’s not just motorists who have an obligation to other to use discernment and due diligence on the roads. It’s the people crossing them, too. Motorists and cyclists are counting on pedestrians not to be stupid and needlessly place themselves in danger, and a law that reminds them not to seems to be necessary. The unbelievable spate of pedestrian deaths in the past four or five years can’t be a coincidence.

    “What these laws specifically ignore is that some pedestrians cannot look out for bad drivers when crossing with the right of way.”

    Such people have an excuse and clearly aren’t the intended targets of this law. People with vision good enough to peer into tiny screens of 8 pt type instead of using that excellent vision to do their bit to head off accidents are.

  11. Another example of the false equivalency between a driver in control of tons of metal moving at high speed, and a pedestrian moving only themselves at walking speed. Do we require pedestrians to wait until they’re 16, pass a test, and get a licence before they can walk outdoors? Of course not. Do we allow people who are visually impaired to drive? Of course not. Do we make it illegal for people with some alcohol in their blood to walk? Of course not (although stats show that’s actually more dangerous to them than texting).

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