Should it be illegal to text or talk while walking down the road?

by on July 30, 2008 · 3 comments

When I was growing up in Illinois and Indiana, my friends and family used to make fun of me for always having my nose in a book. Everywhere I went I carried a book–first comics then novels–and was constantly reading while I walked about the neighborhood. [I still do so today, except it's more like nerdy law review articles and government filings these days.] My dad used to always say that if I didn’t cut it out that one day I was going fall on my face or, worse yet, get hit by a car.

Luckily that never happened. But I thought of this again today when reading about this new law from my old birth state of Illinois that would ban texting and talking on mobile devices while walking through roadways. The penalty isn’t all that steep (just a $25 misdemeanor) and the law certainly is well-intentioned (trying to deter pedestrian injuries / fatalities or traffic accidents), but one wonders if such a law is really needed or if it will accomplish the goal of improving public safety.

As a general matter, I think it’s unwise for governments to pass laws protecting people from their own stupidity. But proponents might respond that the measure is equally as important in protecting others from your stupidity. That is, a distracted pedestrian could cause accidents. Therefore, it should be a crime for them to text or talk while crossing a roadway.

The problem with that logic is that it could apply to almost any of the countless other activities one does while walking down the road–including reading a book or article like I often do. Or what about listening to your MP3 player? And, quite frankly, the most distracted moments for me while I am walking involve arguments with my wife and kids! So, there are many distractions in this world and we can’t ban them all.

But what if we just banned just this one distraction of texting or talking while walking? Wouldn’t that help public safety at least a little bit? Well, we then have to ask about the effectiveness of such a ban. Do you really think you are going to stop the masses from blabbing on their cell phones all day long? Or texting incessantly? Well, good luck with that. It’s going to take fines that are a lot stiffer than $25 bucks to have a serious deterrent effect. And you’re going to need cops aggressively harassing people at every other corner if you really want to crack down on it.

Which brings up one final point: Is this really a sensible use of law enforcement time? Even minute a law enforcement officer spends policing such activities is a minute they could have spent policing something that represents a more serious threat to public safety.

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