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Monique Keiran: Distracted walking not the real problem

With the season’s early evenings, long nights and gloomy weather, Victoria-area police and the Insurance Corp. of B.C. are warning pedestrians to take care.

With the season’s early evenings, long nights and gloomy weather, Victoria-area police and the Insurance Corp. of B.C. are warning pedestrians to take care. They advise these road foot-soldiers to dress in bright, reflective clothing, wear lights, watch for traffic and be vigilant.

Common sense requires us to take precautions when venturing forth at night on or along roads on foot at this time of year, but in our car-crazy culture, precautions are required at all times.

Pedestrians are the most vulnerable road users. They have the most to lose in any sudden contact with a speeding 1.8-tonne vehicle or a 30-kilogram bicycle. Of course, they must watch out for their own safety on, alongside and near roads! They must, because nobody else is.

And that means looking up and putting the phone away.

Recent calls for restricting use of cellphones by pedestrians, similar to distracted-driving laws, have been making the rounds. In a recent online Insights West survey, 66 per cent of Canadians who responded said they were in favour of laws forbidding cellphone use by pedestrians crossing streets or walking on roads.

A ban already exists at CFB Esquimalt, where listening to music with earphones can get you pulled over by military police. Some U.S. jurisdictions have enacted distracted-walking laws, prohibiting even conversing with other pedestrians, while overlooking similar behaviours in drivers — par for the (race) course in the car-driven U.S. In July, Toronto called for the Ontario government to ban residents from using mobile devices while on a roadway.

Our government has indicated it isn’t considering such legislation for British Columbia. Laws already exist that cover distracted walking, if police choose to enforce them.

But all this recent attention on the Problem of Distracted Pedestrians is distracting us from the bigger, more costly and damaging problem.

The recent strategy shifts the public discourse away from distracted driving. It obscures the constant damage caused by thousands of people who deliberately and regularly operate high-speed potential killing machines on our roads while fiddling with phones, food, files and makeup. It steers the narrative away from those responsible for driving irresponsibly and their responsibilities to other road users.

During the past year, messaging has moved from “Stop messing around and pay attention to driving,” to implying that pedestrians are somehow at fault for the unacceptable vehicle–pedestrian accident statistics.

You might recognize some of the behavioural strategies behind this change. Deflection is used to shift focus away from an accusation — to change the subject. Projection dresses other people up in unpleasant feelings we have about ourselves. Blame offloads responsibility for negative outcomes onto others.

You could say all three strategies are at play here.

Police and ICBC statistics show B.C. drivers find the province’s distracted-driving penalties insufficient motivation to put their phones down and keep their eyes and attention on the road. Almost 60 pedestrians are killed and 2,400 injured in crashes every year in B.C. According to ICBC, the top contributing factors in those accidents are “driver distraction, failing to yield the right of way to pedestrians and weather.”

The trend repeats in many other cities across North America, despite similar laws and enforcement.

Few jurisdictions keep statistics on distracted walking, but one Ohio study found that, between 2004 and 2010, the number of pedestrians killed while using a cellphone increased to 3.6 per cent from fewer than one per cent. In Toronto, of 4,522 pedestrian injuries in 2008, 598 were directly linked to pedestrian distraction.

However, according to a report this year by Toronto’s medical health officer, pedestrian collisions in which the pedestrian was reported as being distracted have fallen since 2005 — several years before smartphones became ubiquitous.

Furthermore, Ontario Ministry of Transportation data show that, while the number of collisions each year that resulted in injury or death due to inattentive drivers rose from 6,100 in 1994 — long before smartphones — to 14,000 in 2012, the number of collisions due to inattentive pedestrians barely shifted from about 650 over the same period.

Pedestrians who walk with their attention glued to their phones, ignore traffic signals and disregard what’s going on around them are a danger. However, more accidents happen and more serious accidents happen because of drivers who don’t pay attention.

Yes, pedestrians need to smarten up, but let’s pay attention to where the real problem lies.

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