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Distracted walking bill unfairly targets pedestrians

Fining distracted pedestrians would unfairly shift the onus away from drivers for improving road safety, says Toronto personal injury lawyer Jessica B. Mahabir.

A private member's bill, introduced at the provincial legislature last month by MPP Yvan Baker proposes to fine distracted pedestrians up to $50 if they cross the road while using their phones.

But Mahabir, a lawyer with Derfel Injury Lawyers, tells AdvocateDaily.com the new law would be a “terrible idea.”

“It sends the message that pedestrians are less welcome on the streets when we should be doing more to encourage their presence in downtown areas where we have massive traffic problems,” she says. “Ultimately, these people are walking around unprotected, while drivers are travelling around in giant potential steel weapons. The onus should be on them to take more care.

“I recognize that fatalities have grown at an alarming rate over the last few years, but I don’t think the answer lies in fining pedestrians,” she adds.

Baker, who represents Toronto riding Etobicoke Centre in the provincial legislature, said at a news conference that Bill 171, the Phones Down, Heads Up Act, was inspired by local constituents who urged him to act following an increase in pedestrian deaths in the city. According to the CBC, 42 pedestrians were killed on the city’s streets in 2016, the highest total since 2002.

If passed, the cellphone ban suggests $50 fines for a first offence, escalating to $75 for the second, and all the way up to $125 for the third. The proposed law creates exemptions for emergency calls and for the continuance of conversations begun before stepping into the crosswalk. 

"These fines are modest and are meant to act as a deterrent," Baker explained at the news conference.

The CBC story points to a 2015 report by Toronto Public Health examining pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the city from 2008-2012, in which the authors concluded that inattentive pedestrians were around 40 per cent more likely to be injured or killed in a collision. However, the same report also found that most incidents involved people crossing at a green light where they had the right of way ahead of the vehicle that struck them.

In his remarks, Baker rejected criticism that the law minimized driver responsibility for crashes, noting that the bill would also force the ministry of transportation to lead an annual distracted driving awareness campaign.

"The focus of this bill is not to point a finger at either pedestrians or drivers," he said.

Mahabir says the focus on education, without the threat of fines, would be a better way forward.

“I think you can achieve the same ends with a combination of public service announcements and police visits to schools to explain the dangers of distracted walking,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Hawaii, Honolulu recently became the first U.S. city to pass legislation banning people from crossing the road “while viewing a mobile electronic device,” exposing repeat offenders to fines of up to US$99. 

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