Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Why a 'zombie law' won't stop the 'killing and maiming' happening on Toronto streets

Zombie laws target pedestrians using their phones while walking.
Zombie laws target pedestrians using their phones while walking.

Aggressive or distracted drivers kill or seriously injure one person every two days in Toronto.

Since 2005, their reckless behaviour has contributed to more than 2,000 pedestrians getting hit while just trying to walk in the city. So it takes some real gall to look at these numbers, included in Toronto’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan, and say, hey, what we really need is a new law for pedestrians.

But the gall has arrived.

Today, Liberal MPP Yvan Baker will introduce the Phones Down, Heads Up Act, a private member's bill modelled after recently passed legislation in Honolulu dubbed the “zombie law.” If it passes through Queen’s Park, it would empower cities to impose fines starting at $50 for pedestrians caught using a cellphone or electronic device while crossing the street.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Everyone should pay attention when crossing the road. No one should be so consumed by Instagram that they cross the street without looking both ways.

But the notion that there needs to be a law governing this behaviour is ridiculous. If you were to make a list of legislation needed to protect road users, this kind of bill would barely rate.

For one thing, there are no statistics that suggest so-called “distracted walking” is a major factor in road safety.

In 2015, Toronto Public Health released a report on pedestrian and cycling safety. One of the things they looked at is the issue of pedestrian inattentiveness – which would include looking at a cellphone screen and other distractions.

They found that, based on statistics recorded by Toronto police between 2008 and 2012, pedestrian inattentiveness contributed to just 13 per cent of collisions between drivers and people.

That means, in almost 90 per cent of cases, pedestrians were paying attention to their surroundings and got hit anyway.

By the numbers, dangerous driving is a far bigger problem than pedestrians not paying attention.

To illustrate that further, the same report says pedestrians had the clear right-of-way in 67 per cent of collisions, versus 19 per cent of collisions in which pedestrians did not have the right-of-way. (In a further 14 per cent of collisions, the right-of-way is unknown.)

Much of the time, pedestrians are hit by turning or speeding cars while doing things as innocuous as attempting to cross at an intersection.

In those cases, it’s hard to see how not having your phone out would make a difference. I guess a bit of extra attention might allow you to pull a sweet backflip to avoid a car, but acrobat training should not be a requirement for safe passage on Toronto streets.

None of this is to say that distracted walking is a complete non-problem. The stats say it isn’t. But the scale of it does not justify legislation — especially legislation that will empower bylaw officers to hassle people on the streets because they were seen using a cellphone.

Instead, try road-safety education, especially for children, so they don’t get in the habit of using their phones on the street. Try building safer road infrastructure to avoid potential conflicts in the first place.

But any new legislation should be focused first at those doing the killing and the maiming. The real danger on our streets isn’t on a phone screen. It’s behind the wheel.

This post was originally published at on 2017-10-30T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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