TORONTO — A proposed law targeting distracted pedestrians will open up a broader debate about the risky behaviour, an Ontario politician advocating for a "zombie bill" said Monday.
Liberal backbencher Yvan Baker said the bill — called the Phones Down, Heads Up Act — would impose fines for anyone caught using a cellphone or electronic device while crossing the street.
Named after the shambling supernatural creatures, the "zombie bill" would encourage pedestrians to put down electronic devices by imposing fines ranging from $50 for a first offence to $125 for a third offence.
"If you walk the streets, you see people on their cellphones crossing the road using their phones," Baker said. "Experts tell us that if you are distracted as a pedestrian that you are more likely to get hurt."
In the first nine months of this year, 25 pedestrians died on Toronto streets. Last year, 43 pedestrians were hit and killed on city streets.
According to Ontario's chief coroner, 11 out of 95 pedestrian deaths in 2010 involved people distracted by a cellphone or electronic device. A 2015 Toronto Public Health report found inattentive pedestrians were 40 per cent more likely to be struck.
"It's about raising awareness about risky behaviour because limiting that behaviour will save lives," Baker said.
The bill would only allow exceptions for pedestrians calling emergency services, or when they're continuing a phone call started before crossing the road and municipalities would have the ability to opt-out of the law.
Rising pedestrian deaths have prompted other jurisdictions to pass laws targeting distracted walking. Earlier this month, for example, Honolulu became the first U.S. city to ban people from texting or using digital devices while crossing roads.
In July, Toronto city council passed a resolution asking the Ontario government to amend the Highway Traffic Act to make it illegal to use a cellphone while crossing the street. Last February, the city of Montreal also called on the Quebec government to make it illegal for pedestrians to text while crossing intersections.
Private member's bills seldom become law and Premier Kathleen Wynne would not commit government support for the proposed legislation but called it an "interesting idea." Crossing the street with divided attention is risky, she said, noting motorists are barred from driving while looking at their phones.
"The number of people I see walking in the middle of a big intersection with their face down looking at their phone, I think it's incredibly dangerous," Wynne said.
New Democrat Cheri Di Novo said the proposed law sends the wrong message and the government should instead beef up distracted-driving penalties.
"Extremely dangerous signal'
"It sends a signal that victims are to blame and not distracted drivers,"Di Novo said. "That's an extremely dangerous signal to send."
Brian Patterson, president of the Ontario Safety League, said he's not concerned the law would be too difficult to enforce.
"I don't see this as an opportunity for the police department...to man every intersection in this province," Patterson said. "What we need to do is raise the awareness that this is a very high risk."
Dylan Reid, spokesman for pedestrian-safety advocacy group Walk Toronto, called the bill "bad and redundant." Pedestrians should always pay attention to where they're walking, but its up to drivers not to interfere with people as they use crosswalks with the proper right-of-way, Reid said.
"Being hit by a car is a much bigger disincentive than a $50 fine," Reid said. "Pedestrian inattention is a bit of a red herring. It distracts people from the things that will actually make a difference — which are better infrastructure and getting drivers to not look at their phones and pay attention."
— With files from Peter Ray in Montreal.