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Confessions of a distracted pedestrian

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Esther Cepeda
February 1, 2011
— I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. And I’m not a lead foot on the road. But I’ll be the first to admit I engage in one seriously risky behavior: I’m a distracted pedestrian.

I learned this the way anyone who unwittingly puts themselves or others in harm’s way finds out such a thing—by reading about proposed legislation to put a stop to the deadly behavior.


At least I was safely at home when I first read about the newest statistics released by the Governors Highway Safety Association in its report “Spotlight on Highway Safety: Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State.” Uncharacteristically, I wasn’t walking down the sidewalk reading the news story on my smart phone, or on a run while listening to a podcasted report about how a state-by-state look at pedestrian fatalities for 2010 found that they have increased for the first time in four years.


The safe newsprint in my hands told me that eight states had an increase of at least 10 pedestrian traffic fatalities, which the GHSA defines as “the death of a person not in or on a motor vehicle or bicycle who is struck by motor vehicle in transport in a trafficway.” But Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon and North Carolina had an average of 21 more than in 2009.


The report produced a slew of news stories describing proposed laws states are trying to put into place to keep people like me—who consider every waking moment an opportunity to jam ever more data into the brain—from creating traffic hazards.


Such laws are grist for those who despise “nanny state” government overreaching. They howl over restrictions and fines that threaten to take what little joy there is in life out of their hands and into those of bureaucrats.


I’m a natural-selection kinda gal. I know full well that I walk, run and ride under the influence of my iPod at my own peril. I’ve walked in front of inpatient cabs trying to turn right on red under the spell of a Stephen King novel, run on country roads with Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” blasting in my ears, and gone on bike rides with the audio version of The Economist.


Though I’d like to say that the sort of laws written to make me hit “pause” while crossing the street or vow not to check e-mail on the way to the train are an affront, I can’t. They might save lives, and I’d hate to leave my kids motherless because I stepped in front of a bus while enthralled by a report on Turkey’s GDP. It could happen. Almost has, in fact.


But it would take, at the very least, a $100 ticket to provide a real disincentive to unplug myself when I’m running from here to there. It’s not easy to break lethal, smart phone-induced habits.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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