Slow down: txt ahead

A US town has banned texting while walking. Should we follow suit, wonders Jonathan deBurca Butler

A TOWN in the US last week introduced a strange fine which they hope will stop ‘zombie’ texting.

Thomas Ripoli, head of police in Fort Lee, New Jersey, has ordered his officers to fine people $85 (€66) if they are engaging in ‘dangerous walking’. Texting while crossing the road is also an offence.

Ripoli says there has been a sharp increase in the number of accidents involving pedestrians. This year, 20 people have been hit by cars in the town, which has a population of 35,345. Some victims were sending text messages or on the phone when the accidents occurred and one person was killed while texting.

Prior to the new law, Fort Lee’s finest spent two weeks handing out pamphlets warning of the dangers of ‘jaywalking’. So far, the police have issued 117 fines but it is not clear how many were for texting.

Are people who text so restless or so needy of an immediate response that laws have to be put in place to protect them?

Apparently so.

Many countries in the West, including Ireland, have laws against texting while driving. Ten minutes of standing on the side of the Milltown Road in Dublin showed me many people aren’t bothered about it. From 3.23pm to 3.33pm last Wednesday, I spotted eight people on their mobiles while driving. Three were texting while driving and one was driving a lorry.

Road Safety Authority research conducted in 2011 shows that 45% of drivers use their mobile phones while driving. The report shows that, at any given moment, 6% of drivers are using a mobile phone.

“A person is four times more likely to crash if on a mobile,” says Brian Farrell, of the Road Safety Authority. “And, obviously, the risks increase significantly if a driver is texting. They are not concentrating fully when they’re texting. We’ve even heard some scary stories about people updating their status on social networks while driving. Absolute lunacy.”

“To pick up the phone and to use it while driving, whether to make a call or to text, is a premeditated act,” says Mr Farrell. “People know that picking up that phone is dangerous, they know the risks associated with it and for us that is just completely unacceptable. People are exposing themselves, but also other people, to risks. Whereas people caught speeding might be able to say they hadn’t noticed the speedometer, there’s no excuses with the mobile. We know of instances where a mobile has been a factor in fatalities here in Ireland.”

Mobile phone offences are second behind speeding on the penalty points table at under 100,000 points (Apr 2011). Considering that mobile phone offences were only brought into the scheme in 2006 — four years after points were introduced — the figures are somewhat alarming.

Penalty points and fines aren’t always a deterrent. So Montreal native Mathieu Fortin has gone public with his story. Fortin’s 20-year-old girlfriend, Emy Brochu, died when she drove her car into the back of a tractor-trailer truck in Quebec, Canada on Jan 18. She had been exchanging text messages with Fortin when the accident happened.

Her last message read: “I love you too and I’ll try to make you happy. Mr Fortin.”

Police investigating the accident suspected that Ms Brochu had been distracted by a mobile phone while driving, and later concluded that the conversation between the couple was a contributing factor.

Fortin has opened a Facebook page showing his girlfriend’s final message and his own heart-breaking follow-up texts. He is urging people to spread his and Brochu’s story to avoid something similar happening.

The last available figures from Euromonitor show that, on average, people in Ireland sent 2,700 text messages each in 2009. That put Ireland in second place, behind Lithuania. That dubious ranking within Europe’s texting elite is not so hard to believe. It has somehow become acceptable to whip out the mobile and start texting mid-conversation. But one pub in Dublin — Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street — has taken the law into its own hands and erected a sign behind the bar which tells patrons to leave the premises if they wish to converse with the ‘plastic’.

After her experience earlier this year, Bonnie Miller, from Michigan, is now more inclined to limit the use of her phone. While out for a walk on her local pier with her husband and son, Bonnie decided to send a text. While doing so, she lost her footing and fell off the end of the pier into the St Joe River.

The 45-year-old was eventually pulled to safety. As to whether she would have been fined in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is unclear but her accident sends out a clear message: tink b4 u txt.


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