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I'll happily pay a fine if it keeps us pedestrians off our phones

Rules that save lives are worth their inconvenience.

It's our first real holiday away from our kids and it's coming to an end. November 2008. We're walking through one of those open gardens and admiring the way the roses bloom. I hear my phone ringing but I'm ignoring it. After all, how important can it be?

That was the day I missed the phone call from one of the paramedics in the ambulance driving our son, with a suspected spinal injury, to the nearest spinal care hospital. By the time we drove the 100 kilometres – like maniacs – to the hospital where he lay, we knew it wasn't the worst possible outcome. He'd been riding downstairs and turned wheels over head but had been wearing a helmet. Both paramedics said the helmet saved him.

It's hard to pay attention to what's going on around you if you are engrossed in your phone.
It's hard to pay attention to what's going on around you if you are engrossed in your phone. Photo: Louise Kennerley

I'm a big believer in rules that save lives. Whether it's helmets or seat belts, I'm there. This puts me at odds with those who think people should take responsibility for their own risk-taking behaviour. And most of those people are (a) not parents and (b) not taking those risks any more. There are cyclists who don't want rules, who don't want to wear helmets and who don't want to carry identification. They say those rules will put them off cycling.

But here am I about to sign up to support an idea that will probably affect each and every one of us. Certainly me. I am the world's worst pedestrian. I walk three kilometres each way to work each day and, some days I have no idea how I navigated myself to my desk.

And it's why I now find I'm standing with a New Jersey state assemblywoman, Pamela Lampitt, a Democrat, who is being mocked all over. She introduced legislation into the New Jersey state house last Monday to penalise pedestrians who use non-hands-free mobile phones while walking on public footpaths and on roads. It's the same way New Jersey treats jaywalkers. If the legislation passes, pedestrians in breach will be hit with a fine of up to $US50 and possibly 15 days in jail.

Insane, you say?

About a year ago, I was fined $70 for crossing the road at an intersection against the lights. To be honest, I didn't even notice that the little green man had turned red. In fact, I don't think I noticed him at all. What I did see was the traffic completely still and so I bolted. Across six lanes of traffic. With my phone in my hand.

That's what you call insane. I'm lucky I got pinged. It was a bit of an alarm not only to those around me but to myself. It's hard to pay attention to what's going on around you if you are engrossed in your phone and that's one of the reasons that using your mobile while you are driving attracts huge fines.

We think texting while driving is riskier than walking. But texting while walking also has significant effects. In 2012, researchers at Stony Brook University in the state of New York found that young people walking and using their mobile phones made more walking errors and had trouble with memory recall. The study by Eric Lamberg and Lisa Muratori, published in Gait & Posture, showed that participants who talked while walking were 16 per cent slower and were much more likely to walk off course than those who were just concentrating on the one task of walking. Add texting to the mix and participants were one-third slower.

That research was not the only study to show the negative effects of trying to do two or three tasks at once.

My very favourite was finding the 2015 study, led by Andrew Strubhar and also published in Gait & Posture, which seems to say our brains put texting first. In that study, 32 participants texted while standing, while walking and while in what the researchers call "perturbed stance". The texting ability of the participants stayed pretty much the same. In fact, it found that "subjects will maintain their baseline texting speed and accuracy at the expense of gait [walking] speed and impaired balance".

And that's why, on a crowded city street and on packed footpaths, you will suddenly find someone who has stopped – dead – in front of you as they look for the emoji of choice.

I bolted. Across six lanes of traffic. With my phone in my hand. That's what you call insane.

Earlier this year, Victoria's Transport Accident Commission chief executive, Joe Calafiore, said distraction of pedestrians was emerging as a major factor in the number of pedestrian deaths.

Last year, Amy Williamson and Alexia Lennon presented a paper at the 2015 Australasian Road Safety Conference that said pedestrian crashes account for about 14 per cent of Australian road fatalities. A study they completed of more than 200 pedestrians in the Brisbane CBD showed exactly how prevalent our use of mobile phones is while trying to cross the road.

As they report, result indicated that "smartphone use for potentially distracting activities while walking and while crossing the road was high, especially among 18-30-year-olds, who were significantly more likely than 31-44-year-olds or 45-65-year-olds to report smartphone use while crossing the road".

I doubt my age group (ahem, over 30) are all that likely to reveal their risky behaviour.

But if takes fines to make us all get off the phone while we walk, that's a fine worth having.

Jenna Price is a columnist for The Canberra Times and a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney. Facebook: JennaPriceJournalist. Twitter: @jennaprice. Email: jennapricejournalist@gmail.com

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