It's time to ban walking under the influence of smartphones

Lela London
A recent case has highlighted the potential danger of crossing a road while looking at your phone - Cultura RF

Imagine: you’re on a busy road in London Bridge, cycling through a green light, when a pedestrian steps out in front of you.

When you see she's looking at her mobile phone, you sound your air horn and try to swerve out of the way – but she panics, steps into the collision, and you're both knocked to the ground.

The kicker? She gets up, sues you for damages, and the judge rules that you're liable. 

It all sounds a bit like a bad Black Mirror episode, doesn’t it? Except, for cyclist Robert Hazeldean, it's far from fiction. Yesterday, Hazeldean was told he lost his case to his street-crossing plaintiff in question, 28-year-old yoga teacher Gemma Brushett, and would have to pay her compensation.

Personally, I can't wrap my head around it.

We wouldn't excuse a driver involved in a crash after using a smartphone on the road, so why should we excuse a pedestrian – especially when, in this case, the cyclist seems to have been alert and taken evasive action?

Should I ever walk out into a green-lit road while staring at my phone (and I wouldn’t), I expect it might be more than a little challenging to get to the other side unscathed. By stark contrast, however, this case suggests I'm within my rights to do so – highlighting a depressing aspect of the phone-dependent culture we're accustomed.

Every day at around 6pm I brace myself for a torrent of Instagram-scrollers, WhatsApp group spammers and Spotify playlist selectors placed like oblivious land mines along my route home.

They plough forward, head down, relying on muscle memory which forces me to dance around head-on collisions. Hardly conscious. And hardly fun for the end of a working day.

Have I been tempted to stand still while others unknowingly walk their devices into me? Absolutely. Have I clapped in the face of phone-fixated men to avoid accidentally being knocked into the road? On more than one occasion.

But there’s only so much one five-foot-tall woman with her phone in her handbag can do.

Phone addiction has become an epidemic. Last year, Ofcom discovered the average adult spent at least one full day per week online, opting to see their world through an OLED screen, rather than participating in or empathising with the reality they might affect. 

So, what can be done?

One interesting – and, I think, sensible – approach is being adopted in parts of the US, where Honolulu (Hawaii) and Montclair (California) have made it illegal to walk across the street while looking at a phone. 

New York is set to follow suit – last month, many of the state’s Democrats supported a bill which would make texting while crossing roads illegal, banning the use of “any portable electronic device” at roadways.

The bill cited various statistics and studies to illustrate the dangers of distracted smartphone use. For example, it stated that teenagers are more likely to get hit by a car than younger people because they look at their phones as they cross streets. And it's something the many injured players of Pokemon Go are all too familiar with.

We could do with similar legislature here, to help stem the tide of smartphone obsession. We have to take responsibility for the ramifications of our screen habit, whether that's through moral or legal change. If health and safety laws ban us from driving under the influence, the same considerations have to be made for other addictions.

Either that, or we all await the day a text message causes us physical, emotional and financial harm.