Our world has a lot of serious problems. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate — and melting glaciers are leading to rising ocean levels that threaten coastlines. Oceans are filling up with plastic waste. North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons; Iran may soon have enough enriched uranium to construct a nuclear weapon. Tensions between Pakistan and India continue to escalate; Syria, Turkey and Venezuela pose threats to regional stability. China and the U.S. disagree on trade policies and other critical matters.
Meanwhile, here at home, our political system is being tested with the recent impeachment and acquittal of the third president in the history of our country. The U.S. income gap is widening. Gun violence in America continues. Opioid addiction. Access to clean water. Escalating health care costs. Public education. Criminal justice reform. The Coronavirus pandemic.
On and on — there are real problems. And while I know I should be spending my time thinking about important issues like these, I’ve been giving thought to something less consequential. If you visit any U.S. city, airport, sports arena, shopping mall, train station… you’re familiar with the problem. It’s driving me crazy. And maybe you, too?
I’m talking about phone zombies! Oblivious to everyone and everything around us, we’re texting on our phones at all times. Although not a criminal hazard like texting and driving, zombies are creating chaos.
Walking in our busy cities is already harrowing. Unlike driving, there’s no consensus regarding rules of the road for pedestrians. Do I walk on the right? Or the left?… Are there passing lanes?… Should I stay to the right, if I want to walk more slowly than the pace of traffic?… If I walk out of a store on a crowded sidewalk, do I yield to oncoming traffic? People walk wherever they want, at whatever pace they like, on whichever side they prefer.
Now add zombies to the mix — as well more aggressive forms of distracted walking, with people on their phone racing through intersections and public areas — and we have real chaos. In fact, distracted walking led to more than 11,000 serious injuries last year. To look at this problem, let’s give it some context.
Take one train station, in one city — albeit a very big city and a busy station. About 750,000 people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Station each day. If just a small portion of these harried commuters are walking distractedly, you can imagine the number of collisions and near collisions that occur each day. It’s hard to say what percent of these commuters are racing through the station with their cell phone at hand — but from my observation, the figure could easily be one in four or five people. If so, that’s 150,000+ people racing through the station who aren’t paying much attention.
What are we doing that’s so urgent? We’re scrolling Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds; swiping for dates; texting friends; searching random questions; reading emails and newsletters and of course, getting directions from Waze or Google Maps.
On that note: Some might say it’s okay to use a navigation app while walking. Maybe… if you need to quickly glance at your phone to see if you’re on track, that’s fine. But beyond this, you should stand to the side and get your act together. It’s not cool reading and texting in traffic lanes.
I get it; we love our phones. My new iPhone 11 Pro is awesome and I love it, too. It’s reported that the average person spends 90 minutes per day on their phone — and I know I’m on it a lot more than this. But, as a society, we need to agree on norms of civilized behavior for how and when we use our phones. The same scenes are playing out in cities of all sizes — Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Fifth Avenue in New York, Collins Avenue in Miami, Abbott Kinney in Venice. Someone approaching me quickly is entranced looking at her phone and I’m faced with a decision: Hold course and risk crashing into her or, alternatively, suddenly change direction while trying to avoid other traffic. It’s like pedestrian bumper cars.
The more oblivious the zombie, the more likely it is the other person “blinks first” and moves out of the way. Head down, there’s no risk of an awkward “sidewalk dance” — where the incoming person moves one way followed by you mistakenly moving in the same direction. This reality reinforces bad behavior. The zombie enjoys the benefits of an open lane ahead. Like nuclear deterrence theories of mutually assured destruction, the zombie implicitly recognizes you must avoid her — or risk harm to yourself.
It’s time for us to call out this behavior for what it is — selfish, rude, dangerous — and in a few places, including Honolulu, illegal. People can (and will) continue to stare at their phones in elevators and in meetings, over a meal with their partner, or while watching their kids in a school play or at a baseball game.
But when it comes to using cell phones on crosswalks and in high pedestrian traffic areas, we need to establish rules.
I propose two areas of action to address the growing menace of texting. The principal action required is legislative. The second action requires public activism to take reasonable steps discouraging texting in some public areas.
First, we should support local laws that levy fines against people who use their cell phones in crosswalks and high traffic areas. In addition to Honolulu (which was the first U.S. city to pass a distracting walking ordinance in 2017), other cities including Nashville, Boston and New York are looking at passing similar laws against texting and walking.
Penalties in cases of repeat offenders could go beyond issuing tickets. For example, repeat offenders’ phones could be confiscated. Violators would reclaim devices at municipal offices and pay higher fines. While severe, this policy would certainly help reverse the growth of distracted pedestrians. Similar to being towed for parking in front of a fire hydrant, people are unlikely to make this mistake twice.
Secondly, we need to call out egregious pedestrian behaviors. Subtle responses, like throwing shade at someone talking loudly in a theater, simply do not work here. Zombies aren’t paying attention to us, so an eye-roll has no impact.
We need to call out bad actors without provoking further confrontation. I’ve taken to just saying “Zombie!” when I pass a zombie. You could also say “Wake up!” They’re both options.
We’ve seen big changes in social behaviors in recent years. People are increasingly giving up plastic straws and other single-use plastics (good!). We drink less sugary soda and more water. Cigarette smoking is down across all categories (though vaping among younger users is on the rise). Skiers are wearing helmets. Passengers in cars are wearing seatbelts. There is hope.
We can reverse this trend, too, but we need to take action now. My wife, who’s only 5’ 3”, sometimes fantasizes about slamming into zombies — as if to accept their implicit challenge of mutually assured destruction. Yes, I’ve thought about this option, too but I’m not ready for the collision. It is, however, time for us to take a stand. So much in our complex world is beyond our control but this is not.
Now, I’m going to stop typing on my phone and get the subway uptown, through Grand Central terminal and back home. Safely, I hope.
This originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.