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NY Lawmakers Want To Make Texting While Crossing The Street Illegal

Marijuana legalization, rent reform, and driver's licenses for undocumented New Yorkers are among the issues state lawmakers in Albany are struggling to hash out before the legislative session ends in June. But some legislators also want to make it illegal for pedestrians to text and cross the street at the same time.

A bill sponsored by Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz prohibits pedestrians from crossing the road at any point "while using any portable electronic device." The fine for doing so would be from $25 to $50 for a first offense, up to $100 for a second offense, and $250 for a third offense within 18 months. Exceptions include texting the police, fire department, hospital, or "a physician's office or health clinic."

The text of the law states that "using" means "viewing," so presumably people would still be able to talk on the phone while they crossed the street.

Ortiz's bill died in the Assembly last year, but this year, Queens State Senator John Liu has adopted it in the Senate.

"I have gotten more than my share of complaints from constituents about the problem and the suggestion that there ought to be a law. Including from parents who don't want their kids texting while they're walking, much less while they're crossing the street," Senator Liu told Gothamist, in explaining his support for the bill.

Liu, who is a former City Comptroller, said he did not have any data to back up his assertion that texting and crossing the street is a growing public health concern.

"This is just about common sense. Unfortunately it takes a little bit of legislation and the possibility of a minimal fine to get people to think about what they're doing," Senator Liu said.

Isn't that what rarely-enforced jaywalking laws are supposed to do?

"Well, people are jaywalking less, even in New York City," Liu said. Asked for evidence, he responded, "No, I don't have any proof for you. But as there is a more international presence in New York City, I do believe that jaywalking is declining. In many other parts of the world, in other cities I have been to, jaywalking is not a widespread phenomenon."

According to City data, "driver inattention/distraction" was a contributing factor in 17,933 of the 58,717 crashes that occurred in New York City from January of 2018 through April of 2019; "bicyclist/other pedestrian error/confusion" was a contributing factor in 1,447 crashes. Deaths from traffic crashes in New York City have increased in 2019 compared to the same time period of 2018.

"This bill in no way absolves drivers from their paramount responsibility to yield to pedestrians," Liu said, responding to the numbers that show that drivers, not pedestrians, are overwhelmingly responsible for crashes. "However, it puts a little bit of responsibility on the part of the pedestrian."

Liu added, "A fine of $25 to $50 for carelessly crossing the street is not the end of the world."

In 2017, Honolulu passed a similar "distracted pedestrian" law. Janette Sadik-Khan, the Department of Transportation Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told the Times that these kinds of laws represent "an easy way out" of the actual root causes of crashes: street design and driver behavior. "Engineering is a lot more difficult, but a lot more efficient,” she said.

Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes that requires pedestrian and cyclist safety training for people applying to get driver's licenses just passed the Senate.

In a statement, Gounardes told Gothamist he is "skeptical of attempts to shift the burden of road safety on pedestrians but recognize that we all have more work to do to travel our streets safely."

"Everyone who uses the road has an obligation to use them safely and responsibly, whether they are a driver, cyclists or a pedestrian," Gounardes said. "Of course pedestrians should cross the street responsibly and not in an unsafe or reckless manner. But driving is a privilege and drivers bear a special responsibility to drive safely because they have the power to take a life."

Liu pointed out that he and Assemblyman Ortiz were also working on a law that would lower the blood alcohol level used for DWI from 0.08 to 0.05.

"I certainly am happy it creates a discussion, and that's fine, we should have a discussion about this," Liu said. "But there are more people texting on their devices while crossing the street, and there are constituents complaining about it and asking me to do something about it, which is what I'm doing."

Assemblyman Ortiz did not respond to a request for comment.