Honolulu City Council Wants Tighter Distraction Rules for Pedestrians Than for Drivers

It's legal to look at a mobile device while driving in Hawaii. The City Council just passed a bill that would make it illegal to do so while walking across an intersection.

I know. Can you believe this bill? Image: KHON
I know. Can you believe this bill? Image: KHON

Finally, someone in power is scapegoating pedestrians. On Friday, the Honolulu City Council passed a bill that would ban people from looking at cell phones and other electronic devices while crossing the street. Even though people on foot can’t really harm anyone but themselves, it’s a stricter standard than the state of Hawaii applies to people driving multi-ton vehicles through city intersections.

The bill would prohibit people from “viewing a mobile electronic device” while crossing the street. Fines would range from $15 to $35 for a first violation, $35 to $75 for a second violation, and $75 to $99 for a third or subsequent violation.

Council Member Brandon Elefante, who sponsored the anti-pedestrian measure, told CNN he got the idea from local high school students:

“These high school groups were concerned for their peers being distracted while crossing the streets and looking at their phones instead of looking both ways,” Elefante said. “The advancement of technology can sometimes be a distraction and cause people to not pay attention.”

While Hawaii has a state law prohibiting drivers from using electronic devices with their hands, it doesn’t ban the act of glancing at mobile devices like this bill does. Honolulu drivers can take their eyes off the road to look at their dash-mounted devices, issue voice commands, and so forth while plowing through an intersection.

Despite the good intentions of local high school students and the City Council, in practice this bill could be quite insidious. If it’s signed into law, a pedestrian could have the right of way, be struck by a driver, and still receive a ticket for using a cell phone in the crosswalk, even though it’s the driver who should have yielded.

Like jaywalking, which police often used as a pretext to stop people of color, such a law would also be especially prone to selective enforcement.

The bill now goes to the desk of Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who has not expressed an opinion on the measure. He has until July 28 to make a decision.

While the city’s elected officials debate whether or not they should penalize pedestrians, proven changes to keep Honolulu walkers safe are under attack. Curb extensions and bollards installed as part of a pilot project in the city’s Chinatown have been targeted by local businesses and neighborhood grouches, including former Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie, who has an office in the area.

“These things are dangerous, they are useless, and aesthetically, they’re the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” Abercrombie said.

Local resident Lynne Matusow cut to the point in an opinion piece blasting the pedestrian safety measures. “Those who want to drop by to pick up a lei or food cannot find parking,” she wrote. “All in the name of pedestrian safety!”

  • Bicycling Monterey

    I disagree with your opening paragraph’s statement “people on foot can’t really harm anyone but themselves.” My only bike crash causing me injury was due to a jaywalking pedestrian who was distracted by his cell phone. In my successful effort to avoid hitting him, I crashed. Although he was spared any injury, he was startled to have a bicycle and rider suddenly crash near him. He yelled and swore at me, then dashed off. Other pedestrians witnessed the incident and were amazed by his uncaring response. They assisted me; I was bleeding and bruised, and my bike was now inoperable. So no, I don’t agree with your statement that “people on foot can’t really harm anyone but themselves.”

    Whether people are driving, biking, walking, skating, or otherwise getting about, they can all cause harm to others if they are distracted by cell phones or other devices.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    Yeah but you can also check the light before crossing even if you look at your phone at some point while crossing.

  • Frank Kotter

    I bike an hour a day through urban areas and spent two years as a bicycle messenger. In that time, I contacted one pedestrian while riding, causing no injury to either of us and have never had to risk injury to myself avoiding an inattentive pedestrian. Yeah, just like your statement, it is only anecdote, but I ride in a why that puts no one in danger, including myself. In that same time I get accused of riding too aggressively by many so don’t think this entails riding like I’m 85.

    It’s a matter of self responsibility and the realization of the capacity to harm. I feel this article is pretty spot on.

  • Joseph Cutrufo

    “Lynne Matusow has lived in the Downtown/Chinatown community since 1988… She is a native New Yorker.” http://www.civilbeat.org/2017/07/chinatown-bulb-outs-should-be-removed-immediately/

  • Jason

    She also “severed” on the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board from 1988 to 2015.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/15c2a2a71fcb1305239263c6b4cfba101e9a46be68c049939af8b9423d482d43.png

  • Of course, rogue pedestrians are the ones killing 30,000 American’s a year right?

    When it comes right down too it, the statistics are dead clear, it isn’t distracted pedestrians killing and maiming people.

  • William Wickwire

    Well, people need to get to their jobs, to stores, to family events. Cars are mostly a necessary evil, and distracted driving should be illegal too. Cell phones are part of the problem, but so are makeup, fast food, radio stations, alcohol, drugs, comfort/AC controls, and *gasp* children. The list is endless.

    In the end, it comes down to good judgment both of the pedestrian and the driver. You cannot legislate judgment. But citing statistics that reflect prevalence of use to support onerous legislation (or to argue against it) isn’t going to work. People need to drive. Honolulu can’t even get its act together on light rail, a no-brainer.

    I bike to work sometimes and have seen dozens of incidents with distracted pedestrians and focused bicyclists. Death? No. So is that the argument? That injury is better than death?

  • Are you arguing it isn’t? And no, cars are not a necessary evil. We’ve only chosen to make them that. And while they are, lets try to minimize the carnage? Is that really such a crazy thing to suggest?

  • democratnomore

    It is unfortunate a common sense thing like paying attention when crossing a street special in cities has to become a law. It’s amazing they’re isn’t more accidents reported with the growing number of people who walk with their heads in their phones. I’ve seen a father try to teach his daughter to look up by letting the screen door he was holding hit her on the head at a restaurant. On the street I overheard part of an argument between a father and his teen daughter over her not knowing he’d been follower her for five minutes because she had her nose stuck in her phone.

  • democratnomore

    cars are a necessary evil on what planet? When I got my first car even that small pathetic 4 cylinder was truest sense of freedom & allowed me to work and buy a real car 86 firebird that was a thrill to drive I think it eat the go-cart. the major issue isn’t car, walker, biker its people about people being responsible and paying attention.

  • William Wickwire

    At one time, cars = freedom. Go when you want, where you want, with whom you want. But traffic has killed the golden egg. Pedestrians and bikers are sharing the roads more now than ever. So, in this sense, cars are now a liability. Liability = necessary evil.

    I do know that there is a push to create guilt over owning and driving a car. But, I think that technology that isn’t all that expensive (UBER app, GPS trackers on buses, autonomous minivan/buses, WAZEpool) can make fewer cars on the road.

    The problem there is that as soon as there are fewer cars on the road, speeds increase, which decreases safety for pedestrians and bicyclists significantly.

    I don’t know why technology can’t make it so that cars cannot exceed the posted speed limit.