I was out running recently when I noticed a woman in the distance walking toward me.
Nothing unusual about that. Where I run, I encounter pedestrians all the time.
But suddenly, I noticed something odd. Where she had been walking in a normal fashion, her gait changed. She began to weave slightly, almost as if she was having difficulty walking.
As I got closer, I realized what had happened. The woman was in the process of texting on a smartphone. The effort of doing this took her attention away from walking, producing her uneven steps.
This little observation reinforced my view that the use of cell phones in all forms should be illegal while driving. If texting causes unsteadiness during a walk, imagine what happens behind the wheel of an automobile.
The only difference is that a weaving car can kill someone. Like me.
The some states have outlawed texting while driving, but cell phone use in still permitted in many areas. I still see plenty of people with hand to ear while traveling along city streets. Often, they drive poorly.
Meanwhile, it turns out I’m not the only one who has observed the consequences of texting while walking. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that last year, more than 1,100 Americans were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries sustained while walking and either texting or using a cellphone.
Basically, these people weren’t paying attention to their surroundings and either walked in front of a vehicle or ran into something. The actual number of injuries is believed to be higher, because not all such incidents are reported.
In some places, restrictions have been imposed on pedestrians who use smart phones. And a few state legislatures have debated bans on the practice, although none has been imposed.
One problem with outlawing texting or cellphone use while walking is the practicality of enforcement. It’s an activity many people engage in all the time. They see nothing wrong with it — at least until they are hurt. Passing a law won’t stop them.
It’s the same with cellphone use in cars. Like Prohibition in the 1920s, bans on smartphone use will be ignored by individuals who believe government has overstepped its authority.
Yes, states and towns can impose restrictions on smartphone use. They also can make it illegal to chew gum while walking or take a stroll with untied shoes if the case can be made that it’s to promote public safety.
But in a free society, letting people do foolish things comes with the territory, even if they pose a danger to themselves by wandering into a lamppost. When their conduct threatens others, however, that’s where a line must be drawn.
But I expect phone use while driving will persist. After all, years of tough law enforcement hasn’t halted drunk driving. So long as people think they can get away with it, they’ll keep trying.
Mitchel Olszak is a columnist for the New Castle (Pa.) News.