Distracted Walking Law

The crosswalk fronting the William S. Richardson School of Law Library is one of the many ways students, faculty and staff enter and exit the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus.

Two years ago, Honolulu made it illegal — with few exceptions — to cross the street while fiddling with your phone or other device.

It was the first major city in the nation to enact a so-called “distracted walking” law. And since it went into effect, police have issued 232 citations under the law.

But has it actually made roads safer for pedestrians? That’s up for debate.

Pedestrian fatalities on Oahu roads actually soared last year and don’t appear to have significantly dropped off in 2019.

City Councilman Brandon Elefante said the distracted walking law was the brainchild of a group of Waipahu students who were concerned that their peers were spending too much time looking at their phones when they should have been looking for traffic.

“I think it’s really cool to see the youth and students engage knowing that if they reach out to their elected officials and have a noteworthy solution, then something can be done and action can be taken,” Elefante said.

He added that the main thrust of the law wasn’t to crack down on pedestrians, but to remind everybody of the importance of traffic safety.

Before pedestrians cross the road, he said, they should be focused on traffic — not their phones.

“You see more and more folks using technology as a tool, at the same time it shouldn’t be a gateway to distract someone from … crossing from point A to point B,” Elefante said. “The intersections of streets can be some of the most dangerous areas in our county of Honolulu if one is not paying attention.”

The law is part of a number of tactics legislators and police have employed in hopes of cutting the number of pedestrian traffic deaths.

Despite the efforts, pedestrian fatalities continue to rise. As of November 6, there were 84 traffic fatalities that occurred statewide. Of those, 32 were pedestrians.

To bring more pedestrian awareness and education to Honolulu, Elefante is working with “Walk Wise Hawaii,” a pedestrian safety program that hosts awareness campaigns on pedestrian safety, along with the Honolulu Police Department and youth clubs.

“Safety is a really important thing,” Elefante said, “Be really aware and engage with all modes of transportation. Make eye contact with those modes of transportation making sure you do have the right of way and that they’re aware you’re crossing the street.”

But he’s also not abandoning the “distracted walking” law. He said it has a place in the bigger picture.

New resident Bryce Chaddick isn’t so sure.

In February 2019, he was cited under the law after being on Oʻahu for about six months.

“Checked my phone to see who was calling, the next thing I know I’m being pulled over,” Chaddick said.

Chaddick moved here from San Francisco in August 2018, and said he wished he would’ve gotten some education on the distracted walking law.

“If this truly matters to Hawai‘i, they should be legally required to put up signs at crosswalks stating the rules – just as any driver has to take a test and observe local signage,” he said.

Elefante understands that not all people are aware of this law but also emphasizes the importance of getting familiar with the laws of where you are traveling or relocating to.

 

Despite its uncertain impact, others are supportive of the law.

Josiah Corey, a student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, was fined in 2017 and said he understands that the intentions of this law are to protect its citizens and increase the physical awareness some people seem to lack.

“A lot of people are busy on their phones when they cross the roads without noticing or looking both ways. I think it’s important to have a law like this in Hawai‘i,” Corey said.

“It also sucks because a lot of people have their phones in their hands nowadays. It’s just so easy to forget that it’s right there.”

Another UH Mānoa student, Marcus Armstrong-Patterson, said that if the law saves a single life it was worthwhile.

“Life is precious,” Armstrong-Patterson said. “People die every day ... a lot of them are on their phones. Some people die being so caught up in their own bubble that they couldn’t take the time to look up and observe life for a moment and now their life is gone.