A Lesson from Honolulu

I doff my cap to Honolulu for passing what may be one of the 21st-century’s best pieces of legislation to-date: a law that allows police officers to fine pedestrians up to $35 for looking at their electronic devices while crossing the street.

The law is a testament to intelligent lawmaking and an acknowledgement of the paradox of the latest wave of “smart” technology. Smartphones make us stupid: an over-reliance on Google Maps has sapped us of our directional intuition and travel savvy, for instance, while myriad studies have shown how the prevalence of these “devices” in the hands of preschool-aged children have hampered reading capabilities and increased the risk of depression among teenagers.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s new Model S, when operating in “driverless” mode, has led to several fatalities in the last year. Uber had to suspend its self-driving car program after a crash in Arizona caused serious injuries to several motorists.

Now, with people increasingly walking around like automatons — faces in their phones and minds who-knows-where — the human genius leading to such technology as “smart” phones and cars has imperiled us to the point of needing laws to try and mitigate the deadliness. Unfortunately, Honolulu is the exception, not the norm.

I spent the summer at an internship in New York City where, if I had kept my attention on the screen of my phone when crossing the street at the intersection of 27th Street and Madison Avenue — well, let’s just say I probably would not be writing this. Nonetheless, I noticed drivers and pedestrians alike glued to their devices. On a quiet street in Brooklyn, I witnessed a pizza deliveryman on a bike pedal into an open car door. Why? He was texting. In Madison Square Park one morning on my way to work, a woman ran into me because she was looking at her phone.

Granted, I did not bother to move when I saw her coming, distracted by her device, and knew she would run into me, but my perhaps cruel decision stemmed from my disgust at the self-absorption and veritable “un-human” society we have become with the inundation of “smart” technology.

Apparently, this general ignorance of the world around us — nature, other people (in the flesh, that is) or, as the Honolulu law indicates, speeding and deadly trajectories — has come at a price. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrian deaths are at their highest number since 1990 and increased 9 percent between 2015 and 2016 alone. Thus, in addition to sapping interpersonal skills, smart phones and smart cars now sap us of life altogether. $35 seems like a small and worthwhile price to pay for saving a life.

Certainly, drivers need to be aware of pedestrians, and laws mandating “hands-free” driving and stopping at crosswalks exist and, thankfully, are increasing in number. But shouldn’t there also be a responsibility placed upon the walker? In fact, I imagine it might help people beyond saving lives. If anything, a small penalty for “distracted walking” could return to our collective consciousness an appreciation for the people and world around us. A brief relinquishment of the “smart” technology could make us, in a way, smart again.

Plus, with smart technology now taking the wheel from a driver — and in turn the skills once needed to operate a vehicle — we might as well try to embrace the responsibility of self-awareness laws like Honolulu’s inherently demand. These cars might be designed to recognize when objects appear in their paths, but no more. That is, smart cars are actually quite dumb. To the car, a wood post or piece of debris in the road differs little from a sentient human in its path.

With such differences seeming wiped away, humanity’s best hope lies in retaining a sense of self that smart phones, cars, and other “electronic devices” threaten to erase. And if you think Honolulu’s legislation is an impingement on personal freedoms, then I challenge you to beat government to the punch: take your face out of your phone long enough to avoid running into someone or something else, or worse, getting run over. To borrow from the movie “10 Things I Hate About You”: “Remove head from sphincter, then” walk.

Go, Honolulu, go.