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!”

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