Honolulu’s Pedestrian-Blaming Law Sets Off a Round of Copycats

After a Cleveland council member proposed a law against "distracted walking," a local news station jumped at the chance to produce anecdotal evidence. Photo:  WKYC.com
After a Cleveland council member proposed a law against "distracted walking," a local news station jumped at the chance to produce anecdotal evidence. Photo: WKYC.com

There’s a huge but under-appreciated public health crisis unfolding on America’s streets: It’s becoming more dangerous to walk. Last year, nearly 6,000 people were struck and killed while walking, a 25 percent increase since 2010.

Walking is so deadly in America because that’s how we’ve arranged our cities and towns. Streets are designed to move motor vehicles at lethal speeds without consideration for pedestrian safety, and our scattered development patterns increase driving and car traffic, exposing people on foot to greater risk.

Instead of reforming our transportation and land use policies to make walking safer, however, American cities are doubling down on a dysfunctional system by blaming pedestrians for their own deaths.

Honolulu set the precedent earlier this summer by passing a law that forbids looking at an electronic device while walking across an intersection, even though motorists are still permitted to look at dash-mounted devices while driving through intersections. The law won’t make people safer (data doesn’t support the idea that “distracted walking” is a significant factor in rising pedestrian fatalities), but will lend itself to selective enforcement and racial profiling.

Nevertheless, other cities seem intent on following Honolulu’s example.

In Stamford, Connecticut, City Representative John Zelinsky proposed an ordinance modeled after Honolulu’s. Cleveland City Council Member Zach Reed proposed a similar law as well.

Those two bills have set off a deluge of victim-blaming in the local press. One Cleveland television station, for example, took the opportunity to point a camera at pedestrians using phones, as if that alone justified such a law.

In fact the Honolulu law has set off a round of pedestrian-hating takes across the land. Chicago-area columnist Paul Sassone, for example, told his readers, “There is too much suffering of innocent people in the world for me to feel for the terminally stupid.”

If you want to know why walking is so dangerous in the U.S., this attitude explains a lot. The developing conventional wisdom pins responsibility on behavior that doesn’t actually explain the public safety risk. Dangerous driving and poor street design get a pass while the victims of vehicular violence are mocked as “terminally stupid.”

Look at the cities that are making progress on pedestrian safety, and you’ll see policies very different than the one Honolulu has adopted. The DC region is bucking the national trend and reducing pedestrian deaths, thanks to interventions like corner sidewalk extensions and road diets that calm traffic and narrow crossing distances.

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge what’s causing it. That’s the danger for residents of Honolulu and these copycat cities. Walking won’t be any safer because of these laws, but policy makers will feel like they’ve addressed the issue.

  • jcburns

    “Walking is so deadly in America because that’s how we’ve arranged our cities and towns.” And, of course, there’s the distractedness and the simple lack of LOOKING AT THE TRAFFIC. Make eye contact with the driver. Pay attention. Treat it as a situation where awareness is ALWAYS called for, even in the most beautifully-designed pedestrian friendly streets.

  • djx

    “Make eye contact with the driver. ”

    Why the f&ck should I have to make eye contact with a driver to avoid being hit? It’s drivers’ responsibility to not hit people. Is that so hard to recognize?

    Beyond that, in many intersections drivers are coming from multiple directions. We can’t be swiveling our heads around to stare down drivers to stop them from hitting us.

  • Jeff

    Treat it as a situation where awareness is ALWAYS called for

    Sorry but that’s just a depressing worldview. You are okay with living in a world in which you must constantly be on pins and needles to avoid getting killed, while the actions of those who are potentially doing the killing are just kind of accepted as a fact of life?

  • Kwyjibo

    Tell it like it is!

    What brass tacks wisdom do you have for the visually impaired, those in wheelchairs, the short of stature – including children and the elderly – and people with other physical conditions who, unlike yourself, are unable to stop motorists and their multi-ton machines with a mere hard stare?

    Other than “Stay indoors,” I mean.

  • Or, I could be a place where I am allowed to not be killed. Do you check for traffic in your living room? Your front yard? Why are roads taken over by velociraptors then?

    Cars transport PEOPLE. Even they are to serve people, not themselves. Maybe we can use the enormous knowledge we have about design, cognitive psychology, physiology and engineering to make human friendly roadways instead of just blaming people for other people’s mistakes.

  • Joe R.

    Or maybe let’s even the odds a bit. Let pedestrians carry guns. When drivers endanger them, they get to blow the driver’s heads off with no legal repercussions. That might make motorists look a little harder.

  • jcburns

    Who taught you this?! Did your parents say “willfully ignore those huge metal things! It’s all on them!” That is just (forgive me) a foolish way to plunge through life. Drivers have responsibilities–no question– but live an aware life, jeez!

  • jcburns

    Youre not trying to “stop them with a stare,” you’re trying to make contact (albeit momentarily) with another human being. No one in cars, buses, trucks, bicycles wants to hit another human being. So…be a human being, aware in the world! I recommend it.

  • jcburns

    No, not pins and needles, just head up and acknowledging your fellow humans–pedestrians too. Say hi!

  • jcburns

    Yeah, I look up when I go from one room to another in my house–prevents accidental family collisions. This is how humans are hardwired and how ped/vehicular solutions often work in Europe. The wiring in your brain is part of the equation. You kinda sound like “I want it to work no matter oblivious I am at any given moment.” Why??

  • So, when did you stop beating your wife?

    “…no matter how oblivious I am…” is exactly that sort of unproductive, accusatory comment.

    I want it to work not for me but for everyone because that’s practically my religion as a UX designer: We don’t blame people for failures, we don’t assume you can train people, we don’t assume that things like enforcement stick, but we only believe this because we have nearly a century of solid research that it is true.

    Pedestrians in Europe are safer because they have many, many, many more grade separated sidewalks and paths, non-vehicle areas of towns, pedestrian refuges, and more. Their old towns are designed for people. Hell, many of their new suburban areas (same in China, etc.) are designed for people. We don’t even build bad sidewalks most places in the US.

    It’s a structural issue. Blaming people doesn’t fix structural issues, it just assigns blame and kicks the can down the road.

  • jcburns

    I said “kinda sound like.” Not accusing you.

    May I quietly suggest that a system “works for everyone” when everyone participates actively in it? Seems to me like that’s a principle of good UX design—NOT treating humans who have centuries of awareness hardwired in them as if they were lumps of non-sentient jello in a game. You’re not trying to stop the cars—that’s the driver’s job. You’re trying to make sure you’re aware of them, and they (should be) trying to make sure they’;e aware of you. And you’re aware of EVERYTHING else as well—rain, a robbery at an ATM up the street, a Mom or Dad who has just had their kid run off that you can help with.

    We’re all in this together. Awareness makes that real.

  • jcburns

    Why do you insist on framing it as drivers (who, news flash, arepedestrians sometimes too and humans all the time) vs pedestrians? Was there some meeting where it was determined that my neighbor is a wonderful fellow human when he or she is walking down the street, but I must treat them as the enemy–don’t look at their eyes!–when they get into a vehicle?

    Seems absurd to me.

  • Joe R.

    So you think pedestrians should be defenseless against drivers? I’m not turning this into an us versus them argument. I’m evening the odds. So long as drivers treat other road users respectfully, they have nothing to fear. If they don’t, then the results will no longer continue to be so one-sided in the driver’s favor.

    Note I also favor evening the odds in lots of other situations, like cop versus citizen, hunter versus hunted animal, etc. Yeah, I actually support hunting, with the proviso that it’s designed so the hunter is just as likely to be killed by the animal he’s hunting as the reverse.

  • Penchant

    At the same time, cell phones mean that there are people paying less attention, whether they are driving, riding a bus or walking.

    Your assumption seems to be that if you walking, then you cannot possibly be at fault. 100% wrong and dangerous thinking.

  • jcburns

    You are not evening the odds because it’s not pedestrians vs drivers. Not a game. Not a race. Not a hunt. Not a competition. It’s humans all the way down.

  • Joe R.

    If someone driving a car uses that car to threaten me then they’re using deadly force. As such, I have right to return deadly force to protect myself. The courts are pretty cut and dried on that. The fact more pedestrians and cyclists haven’t used their legal right of self-defense is something I find both disturbing and puzzling.

    Not a game. Not a race. Not a hunt.

    Tell that to the 200 or so in NYC alone killed annually by motor vehicles. I only wish the streets weren’t a game of survival of the fittest.

  • Joe R.

    Eye contact only works when the driver is sort of driving civilly to start with. When drivers routinely go down urban streets at 75 mph good luck trying to make eye contact with a driver. The problem is streets which prioritize car speed over every other consideration. The stuff in Europe and China works in large part because street design forces drivers down to speeds more appropriate for a mixed traffic situation where everyone can negotiate for space. Good luck with that on many US streets where drivers get impatient if they’re going under 45 mph.

  • jcburns

    No, it’s not, and I think settling into that attitude is (forgive me) part of the problem.

    Who is using a car to threaten you? I think people (humans, JUST LIKE YOU) are using cars to get from point A to point B.

    If you’re being threatened by drivers, I dunno, report it?

  • jcburns

    “The stuff in Europe and China works in large part because street design forces drivers…” The stuff in Europe in China works because people who are driving connect with the pedestrians and cyclists.

    You’ve got your stereotype finely honed: drivers aren’t civil, and they routinely go down urban streets at 75 miles per hour.

    Which I haven’t personally seen in NYC, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago…? I DO see speeding, yes, but I see lots and lots and lots of people who are driving trying to do so carefully and look out for peds and cyclists and sinkholes.

  • Joe R.

    Who’s using cars to threaten me? Let’s start with the dozens who at one time or another tried to run my off the road while I was riding my bike. And no, I did nothing to get them annoyed at me. Now let’s add those who make turns but fail to yield to me in a crosswalk, even though I was there first and have the legal right-of-way. Let’s also include those who run steady red lights without even bothering to slow down while I’m crossing. This includes lots of private sanitation trucks and quite a few police cars not on call (I know enough to let police with sirens flashing go by).

    I have reported some of these incidents. The invariable response was if I cop didn’t see it then there’s nothing that can be done.

  • jcburns

    Further: COOKING is a situation where awareness is always called for. But you can do it without being on pins and needles.

  • jcburns

    Sorry you’ve had these experiences. I’m just a little bit worried when you attach motivations to their actions “tried to run me off the road.” They may have just been trying to get by you or make a turn or get to the grocery store before it closed—in other words, the same sort of human motivations as you.

    And yes, I agree, I’ve seen lots of drivers screw up crosswalk protocols. Also seen lots of bicyclists screw them up too.

    So yeah, I’m all in favor of using better design to make it easier for everyone to operate by the rules. ALL in favor.

    But I don’t think you start with “cars are the enemy.” That’s the sort of baggage that leads to a solution that “the enemy” won’t embrace, and we need everyone to embrace solutions.

  • Joe R.

    People drive like fucking apes in NYC, with the police being among the worst offenders. 75 mph is actually more common late nights than you might think. 55 mph on arterials is pretty much the norm after about 10 or 11 PM.

    I recall crossing a local arterial a number of times with my mother. She couldn’t make it all the way across in one cycle, nor was there any safe refuge where she could wait. I did my best to get her across, starting her moving before the walk signal if possible. Invariably, when the light changed in the driver’s favor they would start moving as if she wasn’t there. I had to frantically wave my arms and stand right in front of them to get them to wait a few lousy seconds so she could finish crossing. If I seem biased against motorists, maybe the poor driving habits of the locals are partly to blame. There have actually been incidents where motorists get a green light, and then just run over anyone with the misfortune to still be in the crosswalk.

  • jcburns

    In the US, at least where I’ve been lately, you wait for the little white guy before you cross. And yes, turning cars are supposed to yield to you (in most states.) And where I’ve been lately, they seem to.

  • jcburns

    I’m glad you could make eye contact and get the drivers (who were clearly not playing by the rules) to see what was going on.


    You’re right—close calls like that shouldn’t be what happens. I hope NYC does some smarter stuff so that peds and bikes and buses and cars and dumptrucks can share the roads.

    I think you’ve got to be careful when you extrapolate those bad experiences across an entire national population. And again, the same people who are pedestrians can also get into a car or on a bike. It’s not like they’re the National Association of Ped Haters—they’d have to hate themselves.

  • Joe R.

    When I say “run me off the road”, I mean change lanes, and purposely drive extremely close to me on a road where they could have passed me with many feet of space.

    I’m extremely aware of when drivers might want to turn, so I avoid being in that space. Believe me, I do nothing to antagonize drivers, and everything I can to anticipate their needs. That’s why I get all the more annoyed when I’m treated badly. I can certainly excuse a driver in a hurry maybe missing me if I was in their blind spot but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about some drivers who seem to rage when they have to share the road with a cyclist, even if that cyclist isn’t delaying them in the least.

  • Joe R.

    From what I’ve read, nationally most drivers treat pedestrians and cyclists better, so maybe it’s a local issue. Still, we really need to deal with it here. This is, or should be, a city where you can get around relatively stress free on a bike or on foot. I’d personally advocate for more completely separate infrastructure. That seems to work best.

  • Alan

    Pretty sure in most jurisdictions pedestrians do have the right of way outside of limited access highways and the like so yeah the onus should be on drivers. I have to say after taking a break from driving for a long time when I do it now it is with much more patience and ease. Many drivers have zero empathy and consider pedestrians less important people. Not all of course but enough.

  • Whateveryousay

    “Pretty sure in most jurisdictions pedestrians do have the right of way outside of limited access highways”

    That would be true where jaywalking is not an offense. The UK has no jaywalking law, for instance. But here I’ve been stopped by a cop for crossing a road mid-block even though there was no traffic.

  • Alan

    It depends, I’ve never seen jaywalking enforced in New York or Washington DC. I do think people should follow the rules and wait for signals (unless there is no traffic approaching). Most intersections are not signalized though and in that case cars should ALWAYS yield to pedestrians but often people are unaware or occasionally simply hostile. Its not my impression most drivers are “bad” but the idea pedestrians have the responsibility to dodge bad drivers is focusing on the wrong element of that equation.

  • GregKamin

    It’s hardly a typical town but Berkeley regularly does stings of pedestrians for jaywalking. It’s a nice little revenue earner for the city – tickets can run $200.

    They put a couple of cops at an intersection and then cite pedestrians who cross against the light when there is no traffic.


  • Alan

    Ive never been to Berkeley. There is a difference between citing people for crossing at the wrong time/place and saying that pedestrians are responsible for always being aware so they dont get hit by a car which the thrust of this law.

  • jcburns

    This “article” (really, a commentary laden with spin and opinion) does not say that the Hawaii law says pedestrians are responsible for always being aware…it says you must look up from electronic devices when crossing…period!

    Virtually every paragraph of this piece has what I can only characterize as fear-mongering and spin.

    “Walking is so deadly in America because…” No.
    ” Streets are designed to move motor vehicles at lethal speeds” No.
    “The law won’t make people safer” No.

    All of the urban design the author advocates later in the piece (like curb extensions) are great and important ideas…but this law is about pedestrians not looking up from devices.

    Which is also a good idea. And it makes people safer.

    The two can coexist. They can also do other things to make pedestrians safer, and there’s NO evidence that legislators would pass the one and say “our work is done here.”

    I’m not sure “look up from your devices” is something that should be codified in law, but it sure as heck should be something your parents teach you from your earliest days walking on your own. “Look both ways when crossing the street.” Is that phrase familiar? Is that a BAD idea? Of course not.

  • Charles Siegel

    When I am bicycling, pedestrians who walk right into my path, endangering me and themselves, are always people who are looking at their cell phones rather than at the world around them. When I am walking, the people absorbed in their cell phones usually manage to notice me a second or two before they would walk right into me.

    I think the law should not just apply to crosswalks. It should forbid people from looking at their cell phones while walking, period.

    It is better to focus on the real world than to be constantly distracted by the virtual world.

  • Adam Isaacson

    No one said a distracted pedestrian cannot possibly be at fault. But the laws proposed by cities like Honolulu imply that distracted pedestrians are largely at fault, which is not supported by any data. If we want to make roads safer we should start by addressing motorists behavior and roadway design. It is common knowledge that most motorists speed (~7-10 MPH over the speed limit), check their phones fairly routinely driving down the street, frequently fail to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, routinely roll through red lights and stop signs, drive when perhaps they’re slightly buzzed, etc.. As for roadway design, the decades-old practice of “improving” roads has been to make them wider and straighter. That approach encourages speeding because wider, straighter roads make motorists feel more comfortable traveling at higher speeds, so of course they speed up. But speed is a large contributor to auto-related fatalities, perhaps the largest. Kinetic energy is related to speed squared and the mass of the object. Focus on roadway design first, not blaming the most vulnerable users.

  • Are you for real?

  • Darren

    I agree with this law in principle, but am concerned about how it rolls out in practice. It makes me think of LAPD’s draconian jaywalking enforcement, giving $200 tickets to pedestrians if the start once the counter begins, even if the pedestrian can cross with plenty of time to spare. Meanwhile, drivers making turns dangerously cut off pedestrians with impunity. In other words, if pedestrians can’t look at phones while crossing, there must be strict enforcement to ensure motorists *never* look at cellphones while driving.

    Also, I would hope that enacting a law like this does not make cities feel like they are “off the hook” for designing streets that encourage safe, defensive driving.

  • farazs

    Enough with the eye-contact nonsense. On the one hand we have drivers claiming `Oops, I did not see you’ and on the other we have driving apologists like you insisting that pedestrians make *eye* contact.

    Existing law clearly places the onus on the driver. As a pedestrian, there is NO way of knowing if the driver has seen you. There is no magic eye-contact LED which switches on to let you know your attempts were successful. Drivers are not looking for pedestrians as the law requires, they are looking through them.

  • Vooch

    You give those pedestrians an inch and they’ll take a mile. Watch the insanity when pedestrians are allowed to roam chaotically in Munich. The War on Cars is very real. The anti-car zealots are everywhere. Trigger warning.

  • Vooch

    40,000 dead Americans every year suggest cars are indeed the enemy

  • jcburns

    Not insisting! Saying “you know what’s sensible? Look up, look at approaching cars. Look both ways when you cross the street.” COMMON SENSE. Emphasis on the “sense”.

    And your statement “Drivers are not looking for pedestrians as the law requires, they are looking through them“…this is based on, what, your deep conviction that drivers are evil with purely evil motivations?! Please get real. You know how you make eye contact? There’s this circuitry in YOUR BRAIN. Give it a try.

  • jcburns

    Um, no. It suggests you are mistaking the number killed in ALL AUTO ACCIDENTS; pedestrians are about 13% of that (estimated) figure. And, uh “accidents” = “enemy”? Don’t think so.

  • Vooch

    negligent homicide is not a accident its a crime

  • jcburns

    Yes, true, but of course that’s not what these statistics cover.

  • Frank Kotter

    Totally agree, We do need to focus on the real world. Distracted driving gets people killed. In the virtual world, pedestrians looking at cell phones get people killed. We need to keep focused on the real dangers: *IT AINT DISTRACTED PEDESTRIANS DESPITE THE MASSIVE MEDIA EFFORT TO TELL YOU OTHERWISE*

  • Frank Kotter

    Gonna take a stab at this one and say the evidence is the 6000 dead pedestrians each and every year. Has nothing to do with evil. Has everything to do with holding people responsible for their actions.

  • Frank Kotter

    I stop for anyone crossing the road, whether they are looking at a phone, have a baby carriage, are blind or are running across with 5 of their friends.

    From my personal experience everyone is not ‘just like me’, quite the contrary!

  • Vooch

    because the 40,000 innocent Americans killed every year by drivers deserved to die ?

  • jcburns

    That’s NOT what that number suggests. Who’s talking about “deserving”?! Jeez, when you read numbers like that do you ONLY think “cars are evil”? They’re hunks of machinery. They are useful. People do NOT have to use them everywhere. Accidents happen with them, as well as with kitchen knives and locomotives and jet skis. Why go for all the escalating rhetoric?