It May Soon Be Illegal to Text and Walk in Australia

October 4, 2018


Road Safety


Ella Donald

Heads up! Texting while walking has now become illegal in certain countries around the world and Australia may soon follow suit.

And it's no wonder, following many alarming reports that have surfaced over the years, such as one which states that as many as one in three pedestrians use a mobile phone while crossing the road, resulting to an increase in the number of distracted pedestrians being injured or killed within Australia.

In 2014, ABC reported of a pedestrian being hit by a bus which was travelling at 40km/hr in Sydney's busy CBD, with the impact being so hard, it resulted to his head smashing the windscreen. In 2016, The Age reported that 196 pedestrians had been killed on Victoria's roads in the span of five years, with distraction emerging as a major factor.

Interviewed by The Courier Mail last year, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital trauma service director Associate Professor Daryl Wall spoke of a spike in patients badly injured after walking into traffic while using phones, saying they were distracted at the time and that looking at a screen and listening to music was just as dangerous for pedestrians as it is drivers.

People walk erratically when they’re distracted by mobile phones. They don’t walk straight,” he said. “You lose focus. And if they’ve got their earbuds in listening to music, it means they don’t hear the approach of a vehicle. We rely on our hearing to pick up certain cues.”

Wall called for technological advances that would allow a phone to be disabled in certain areas — a solution that would present a number of issues (namely if there was an emergency).

But while this idea may seem unlikely, at least for now, Brisbane City Council have instead put some immediate changes in place, in a bid to curb the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, including reducing the speed limit to 40km/hr on Ann Street and putting in place two new scramble crossings at major CBD intersections.

Looking ahead as to what other changes may be on the horizon for Australia, we take a look at what legislations are being written in other parts of the world.

Man using mobile phone while crossing road

Where is doing it?

When Honolulu, Hawaii passed its ‘Distracted Walking Law’ late last year, it was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to do so. Chongquing, China had made a ‘cell phone lane’ in 2014, an area in London installed padded lamp posts in 2008, and in 2016 the German city of Augsburg embedded traffic signals into the ground near tram tracks, but this law marked the first instance of legislation against those who text while walking.

The Hawaii law carries a $15-35 USD fine, which increases to $35-75 USD for another instance within a year, and up to $99 USD for repeat offenders, stating that 'no pedestrian shall cross a street or highway while viewing a mobile electronic device'.

Montclair, California (population 39 000) followed earlier this year, declaring that from August 1, “No pedestrian shall cross a street or highway while engaged in a phone call, viewing a mobile electronic device or with both ears covered or obstructed by personal audio equipment”, lest the pedestrian get a $100 USD ticket.

“We want to educate the public more than we want to do actual enforcement,” Montclair Police Chief Robert Avels said.

After all, the popularity of such action is only increasing - New Jersey proposed fines of up to $50 or 15 days’ imprisonment for distracted walking in 2016, as did Canadian province Ontario last year, and the Idaho town of Rexburg passed similar laws last October.

Texting walking lane in China
China has introduced a 'phone lane' for texting pedestrians. Source: Imaginechina/REX

How are they enforcing it?

These cities have numerous ways of catching citizens out. Measures to deter people from distracted walking already exist around the world; for example, Seoul, South Korea, has installed street signs warning pedestrians to get off their phones.

There’s been apps that warn phone users of oncoming traffic, pavement lights that change colour with the traffic lights; and following the deaths of 4500 pedestrians, the Road Safety Authority of Paris created a 'Virtual Crash Billboard' to try get Parisians to pay attention while crossing - but these new laws propose using more complex technology that will allow law enforcement to be more vigilant.

Law enforcement in Shenzhen, China are working with social media companies and mobile phone carriers to further facial recognition technology already being used to name and shame jaywalkers by using AI-equipped CCTV cameras, displaying their faces on large screens and a government website, to additionally issue fines via text message.

According to UK newspaper The Independent, “The system uses 7-megapixel cameras and facial-recognition technology to identity pedestrians a database. A photo of the offence, the offender’s family name, and part of their government identification number is displayed on the screen.”

Since beginning to use the cameras in April 2017, within 10 months the faces of nearly 14k offenders had been displayed at a busy junction in the city. “A combination of technology and psychology… can greatly reduce instances of jaywalking and will prevent repeat offences,” Wang Jun, director of marketing solutions at Shenzhen-based AI firm Intellifusion, told the South China Morning Post.

Could Australia do it?

Like many other countries, Australia has introduced measures to deter distracted walkers. After a spate of pedestrian deaths in 2016, Sydney and Melbourne introduced in-ground lights at busy intersections to stop people from walking into traffic. But the effectiveness of such measures is debated, increasing calls for more measures like in Hawaii.

When similar lights were introduced in The Netherlands in 2017, Jose de Jong of VVN, the Dutch Traffic Safety Association said "We don't want people to use phones when they're dealing with traffic, even when walking around. People must always look around them, to check if cars are actually stopping at the red signals."
Pedestrians at busy crossing in Brisbane

However, is it enough? Experts debate otherwise. Queensland is experiencing one of the worst years for pedestrian deaths on record, and in New South Wales, they account for about one in seven road deaths, an increase that is undoubtedly connected to the distracted walking that lawmakers are attempting to mitigate.

After all, in 2014, phone use eclipsed lack of seatbelts as the most common cause of fatal car accidents. Simply, our laws haven’t caught up with the times. In the words of the Pedestrian Council of Australia's Harold Scruby, who calls for a minimum penalty of $200 for distracted walkers, "Our pedestrian laws are 50 years out of date.”

Ella Donald

Ella is a Brisbane based writer for Smith's Lawyers who has written for many noteworthy publications including Vanity Fair, CNN, GQ Middle East, The Guardian, Fairfax, and The Saturday Paper. She covers topics such as entertainment and arts, sport, fashion, food, social and cultural issues, health and beauty, technology, law and travel. She also teaches at the University of Queensland in the School of Communication and Arts.