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Pedestrian advocacy group says city has no business fining pedestrians

To call attention to the problem of oblivious pedestrians, Philadelphia once painted some of these stick-figure pictures on a pedestrian path. Chicago officials are trying a different approach, opting for fines over humor. | Associated Press

Chicago has no business fining people “legally crossing the street” — even if they’re distracted by texting, reading emails, playing video games or talking on their cellphones, the city’s leading advocate for pedestrians said Thursday.

One day after a pair of powerful aldermen proposed hefty fines for “distracted walking,” the executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance branded the crackdown “misdirected.”

Ron Burke advised the City Council to focus instead on what he called the real problem: careless drivers and streets designed to encourage dangerous driving.

“Pedestrians deserve the right of way. The laws are already set up to accommodate that. Whether they’re talking on their phone, talking to a friend, listening to music or whatever, they are to be protected under the laws,” Burke said.

“The law already rightly puts the onus on people driving a 3,000-pound car to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. This proposed ordinance would inappropriately put the onus on pedestrians to essentially dodge cars. It makes no sense to fine people for legally crossing in a crosswalk.”

Instead of throwing the book at pedestrians — with fines ranging from $90 and $500 — Burke urged the City Council to create a so-called “Vision Zero Fund” to bankroll street improvements included in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious plan to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2026.

Those improvements include: better-lit crosswalks and countdown timers; pedestrian-refuge islands on wider streets; narrowing streets and re-striping the width of lanes to force motorists to slow down; installing bump-out curbs that force turning vehicles to go slower and make wider turns; and allowing pedestrians to enter the crosswalk before cars start to turn.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) acknowledged that texting while crossing the street is a “stupid thing to do and that alone should be disincentive to do it.”

But he, too, opposes the plan to ticket and fine pedestrians.

“I’d love to see bad behavior end, but we can’t pass a law for every bad act,” Reilly said Thursday.

“I personally have landed on the hood of a taxicab in a mid-block intersection. And frankly, it’s the drivers who aren’t paying attention more often than the pedestrians.”

The “Vision Zero” plan would improve pedestrian safety by making improvements at 300 Chicago intersections, 25 CTA stations and assorted bus stops.

The three-year campaign also calls for using education and targeted enforcement to reduce an epidemic of crashes that Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld has called a “persistent plague” that has created a “true public health crisis.”

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) could not be reached for comment on the Active Transportation Alliance opposition to their distracted walking crackdown.

A new Honolulu ordinance allows police officers to issue tickets to pedestrians caught looking at a cellphone or electronic device while crossing a city street. Two Chicago aldermen are backing a measure to punish “distracted walking” by pedestrians. | Associated Press

After introducing the ordinance, they pointed to the World Health Organization’s claim that people who text and walk are “nearly four times more likely to engage in at least one dangerous action” including jaywalking and neglecting to look both ways.

Distracted pedestrians also take “18 percent more time to cross the street” than focused pedestrians, Ald. Burke said.

The ordinance introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting would make it a crime to “cross a street or highway while using a mobile electronic device in a manner that averts their visual attention to that device or that device’s activity.”

The crackdown would not apply to law enforcement officers or emergency personnel “when on duty and acting in their official capacities.” Nor would it apply to people “using a telephone to call 911 or other emergency telephone numbers to contact emergency or law enforcement personnel.”