Why Burke and Beale’s Proposal to Ticket for “Distracted Walking” Makes No Sense

Data indicates that distracted driving is the real problem, but the CPD isn't issuing citations for it

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

After Honolulu made it illegal to look at your smartphone while walking across a street, politicians around the country have been floating similar proposals, and last week Chicago aldermen got in on the act. Southwest Side alderman Ed Burke and Far South Side alderman Anthony Beale proposed an ordinance that would fine pedestrians $90 for “distracted walking,” with a $500 fee for repeat offenders, the Sun-Times reported.

“No person shall cross a street or highway while using a mobile electronic device in a manner that averts their visual attention to that device or that device’s activity,” the ordinance states.

Notably, both politicians have been outspoken advocates for the taxi industry, whose drivers were involved in 28 percent of downtown pedestrian crashes, according to a 2011 Chicago Department of Transportation study.

“The goal … is to reduce pedestrian deaths and injuries, especially at crosswalks,” Burke stated in a press release. Beale added that the new law would “increase safety by eliminating distractions for pedestrians at intersections and elsewhere” across the city.

Pedestrian deaths and injuries are obviously a major issue in our city – drivers had fatally struck 39 people on foot in Chicago as of October 31, according to preliminary police data, a significant increase from the year-to-date average of 31.8 deaths from 2011-2015. But as Streetsblog USA recently noted, data shows that victim-blaming crackdowns on pedestrians are the wrong way to address the problem.

After an Ontario politician proposed a law named “Phones Down, Heads Up,” Mike Boos of from the Waterloo-based Tri-Cities Transport Action Group analyzed data from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. Boos found that there had been a steep increase in the number of injury crashes caused by distracted driving in recent years, which coincides with an increase in mobile device use, but distracted walking wasn’t a significant or growing factor in collisions.


Meanwhile, a May 2017 Chicago Tribune report found that citations for distracted driving in our city had plummeted over the last three years, with police virtually abandoning efforts to enforce that ordinance. 45,594 citations were written in 2014, 25,884 were issued in 2015, and a mere 186 were issued in 2014.

The good news is that Burke and Beale’s proposal has been widely ridiculed, with downtown alderman Brendan Reilly leading the charge. “I personally have landed on the hood of a taxicab in a mid-block intersection,” he told the Sun-Times. “And frankly, it’s the drivers who aren’t paying attention more often than the pedestrians.”

At last week’s Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, Chicago Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton said the aldermen did not consult CDOT before proposing the ordinance. She added that there is no data linking a rise in the number of pedestrian deaths with distracted walking.

“Fining people who are legally crossing in the crosswalk [under current laws] – no matter what they’re doing – is misdiagnosing the problem, said Kyle Whitehead from the Active Transportation Alliance. Essentially, he noted, the new ordinance puts the onus on pedestrians to dodge drivers who are breaking the law by failing to respect crosswalks. Whitehead added that to reduce traffic fatalities, the most effective steps the city can take are to redesign roadways to discourage speeding and create additional protection for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as to increase the number of people walking, biking, and using transit so that there are fewer cars on the streets.

But it’s not just “Stop for Pedestrians”-sign-hugging progressives who have come out against Burke and Beale’s bill. Even the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute has slammed the proposal, albeit from a fiscal conservatism perspective. “While there’s little real proof the ordinance would save pedestrian lives, it’s certain that public officials would enjoy the fruits of additional revenues from taxpayers’ already strained wallets,” wrote Vincent Caruso in a recent blog post on the think tank’s website.

  • planetshwoop

    i believe the police are now expected to appear in court for distracted driving tickets. If true, that almost certainly accounts for why the number of tickets for this has fallen off a cliff. Reasonably, the “amount” of distracted driving has stayed the same; the police have changed.

    But enforcement still seems ridiculous. It would be nicer if you could “opt-in” to a program to have your phone have reduced features unless you are at rest (or tagged on a metra/cta line). The benefit would be reduced insurance premiums because conceivably it’s safer for everyone.

  • Jeremy

    This law is the type of thing that could cost Chicago the Amazon deal. Amazon employees tend to be young, tech-savvy workers who are likely to be pedestrians (either for commuting or socially). Progressive companies may not consider setting up in a city that seems to have a “damn those kids” attitude, especially if it is codified in law.

  • Random_Jerk

    I don’t understand why CPD doesn’t ticket the drivers for using the phone while driving. On my 15 min long bike ride to work I could easily issue multiple tickets EVERYDAY. There are at least 3 stop signs that are being constantly ignored by drivers because they have more important things on their phones. This proposal is absurd.

  • Tooscrapps

    Because before it was a City citation and they didn’t have to show up to the initial hearing. Now that it’s trumped by state law, it requires CPD or a complaining witness to attend traffic court.

  • Tooscrapps

    I recently was sideswiped on my bike by a hit and run driver who was on their phone (I was uninjured), but was able to track her down and force her to pull over. After hearing both sides, the officer only gave her a cell phone ticket. There were plenty of video cameras available, but I don’t think a hit and run with no injuries or property damage is a high priority. I canvased, but only one property owner got back to me.

    Meanwhile the officer didn’t show up to the court date. I did, however. She pled no contest and had to pay somewhere around $230 for the fine and court costs. She paid for a lawyer too. I guess it’s better than nothing and it felt good to win one against a careless turned reckless motorist.

  • planetshwoop

    Taxes, specifically tax breaks, are going to be more important than ped crossing laws.

  • Anne A

    The newest version of iOS (iPhone/iPad operating system) has a feature that will put your phone in “do not disturb” mode when you’re moving at least at bike speed.

  • Waymond H. Smith

    The phone is not the issue, we ALL need to put the phones down.

  • planetshwoop

    Right, I agree with you, but we won’t. Checking our phones releases a nice tiny hit of dopamine. So the brain becomes addicted and it’s too easy to just always do it. (Other things that are the same chemical reaction – changing stations on cable, checking email obsessively, etc. — more often involve activities done while sitting still.)

    There’s not motivation from Apple/Google etc to change that – it would hurt their sales.

    Hence the insurance connection. A small technology improvement + financial motivation might make a difference.

  • Jeremy

    Massachusetts state legislature is looking to double fines for illegal crossing if the violator is also using a phone.


  • what_eva

    These kind of features will always be tricky because how does it know you’re operating a vehicle vs being a passenger in a private vehicle (arguments can be made that passengers using a phone can distract a driver, I don’t agree with them, but they can be made) vs being a transit passenger? My phone shouldn’t go DND just because I’m on a bus.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Distracted walkers don’t kill pedestrians, distracted drivers do. Yes a distracted pedestrian can be killed if they are on their phone as they walk across streets not aware and paying attention but that’s on them and they are aware that a pedestrian vs. car match up is not in the pedestrian’s favor and they have a lot more to lose if they get hit. If they choose to disregard that then let them deal with the aftermath (or afterlife).

  • Julia Feldhousen

    But why can’t you just wait to go on your phone later?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Reilly’s full statement to the Sun-Times addresses this issue:

    “Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) acknowledged that texting while crossing the street is a ‘stupid thing to do and that alone should be disincentive to do it.’

    But he, too, opposes the plan to ticket and fine pedestrians.

    ‘I’d love to see bad behavior end, but we can’t pass a law for every bad act,’ Reilly said Thursday.

    ‘I personally have landed on the hood of a taxicab in a mid-block intersection. And frankly, it’s the drivers who aren’t paying attention more often than the pedestrians.'”

    And again, there’s no data connecting “distracted walking” to a significant or rising factor in pedestrian injury crashes, whereas that is the case with distracted driving. So if the CPD isn’t enforcing the existing law against distracted driving, which has been proven to be a major factor in pedestrian crashes, why would it make sense to pass a new law against distracted walking, which hasn’t been?

  • Julia Feldhousen

    Actually, quick bit of research shows that there is data. Distracted walking accidents are up 22 percent in the last 2 years, and 9 out of 10 drivers report seeing distracted walkers crossing roads. It had become such a problem that for the first time in 2015, a statistical report by the National Safety Committee included data on smartphone related accidents. People aren’t going to start changing their ways anytime soon, and a law would at least help the situation if people know they might be fined.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Where did you get first statistic, and does it refer to pedestrian injury crashes, which is what I was talking about, rather than minor incidents? The second stat seems pretty meaningless. It’s also likely that the vast majority of pedestrian injury crashes mentioned in the NSC statistical report you cite involved smartphone use by motorists, not people walking.

  • Frank Kotter

    I will never endanger any pedestrian whether looking at a device or not. I am too careful when driving. I am not special – this is not too much to ask of each and every driver: ‘don’t hit shit’….

  • Kathleen Murphy

    The 22% statistic appears to refer to this report: http://www.ghsa.org/sites/default/files/2017-03/2017ped_FINAL_4.pdf

    It refers to an overall increase in pedestrian deaths over the last two years, not to any specific cause.

  • Guest

    “This law is the type of thing that could cost Chicago the Amazon deal.”

    With Rahm resigning, chances are that Rahm already knows that Amazon ain’t coming here.


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