CommLawBlog’s Curmudgeon-in-Residence observes modern society . . . and doesn’t necessarily like what he sees.

Public safety officials are becoming increasingly concerned about a new cellphone-related hazard.  This time it’s not the problem of driver distraction, which has prompted numerous states to restrict, or even ban, texting or handheld phone use while driving.   No, in this case it’s pedestrian cellphone users who are getting run over in greater and greater numbers due to pedestrian distraction.  Researchers at Stony Brook University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Maryland have identified the growing problem of, and dangers to, distracted walkers.

We here at CommLawBlog can attest to the phenomenon.   Frequently we find ourselves driving toward an intersection or stretch of road where we unquestionably have the right of way, only to find a pedestrian strolling across the road, oblivious to the traffic around him, chattering animatedly on his phone.  He or she doesn’t bother to stop, look or listen (at least not to us).  Instead, he/she just saunters off across the street in perfect confidence that the traffic will halt, veer around, or perhaps levitate over the saunterer as long as he/she is talking into the magic device.

What’s going on?

There was of old a myth or fairytale in which the hero acquired a magic cloak which, though light as gossamer, rendered its wearer invulnerable to weapons.  Is there an app we haven’t heard about that bestows invulnerability on its downloader?  With that app – surely an Apple product – you can walk through battlefields, and bullets will bend around you, arrows will be repelled, and spears will turn into flowers.  Lacking a battlefield, you can ignore all traffic signals as you cross even the busiest of highways.  Havoc may reign around you as cars pile up, swerve onto sidewalks, and crash into jersey walls, but no harm will come to you. Yea, though you walk in the valley of the shadow of I-95 at rush hour, you shall fear no evil, for your app is with you.  

As maddeningly irksome as such pedestrians can be, the temptation to join their ranks is irresistible.  Recently we found ourselves in the role of “pedestrian crossing a street while talking on a cell phone.”   Although we had not downloaded the app of invulnerability, it must have been factory pre-installed on our phone, for we found ourselves blithely crossing the street, utterly heedless of the traffic lights and the approaching cars, concentrating only on the conversation taking place on our device.   Somehow we knew instinctively that our phone would protect us, and protect us it did, for we are here to tell the tale. 

Still, as powerful as this protective cloak is, lawmakers in states like New York are examining whether pedestrians should be forbidden from talking and texting on the phone while walking.  (Presumably the act of simultaneously walking and chewing gum has already been outlawed in those states.)   It seems that occasionally and randomly, the invulnerability cloak doesn’t work.  This is all probably set forth clearly in the terms of service which you click on before downloading the app, but since nobody has actually read the terms of service, nobody knows for sure.  The result is that pedestrian casualties are on the rise – yet another unintended consequence of these mobile devices that pose as our friends.