City of Philadelphia Wants to Protect the Nitwits

Darwin was right … about distracted walkers.

We all got a big kick out of the city’s April Fools’ prank this year—the world’s first “e-lane” for distracted pedestrians—but the joke did carry a message: Too many pedestrians get hit by cars and too often it’s because those pedestrians weren’t paying attention to where they were walking, likely crossing the street while dicking around on cell phones or other mobile devices. But it was just a joke, right?

Actually, it’s not. This AP story, “Distracted Pedestrians Stumble Into Danger,” ran yesterday about a nationwide trend of distracted walkers. It featured amazing video footage of a Philadelphian distractedly stumbling off an El platform and onto the tracks, all while gabbing on a celly. Luckily no train was approaching, as the dude just lay there, dazed, before eventually making his way back to the platform. Then the story dropped this nugget from deputy mayor for transportation and public utilties, Rina Cutler:

Philadelphia officials are drafting a safety campaign that will be aimed in part at pedestrians who are looking at their devices instead of where they’re going. “One of the messages will certainly be ‘pick your head up’ — I want to say ‘nitwit,’ but I probably shouldn’t call them names,” said Cutler.

You read that correctly: Philadelphia is planning to spend money—tax money!—on a campaign extolling the virtues of looking where you’re going. (Also, yes, Cutler used the Jedi mindtrick to call these nitwits nitwits.) Look, I do believe that government has a role, an important role (beyond “get(ting) the hell out of my way”) in public safety. I also believe that there are lots of government programs and protections that act overwhelmingly in the public interest, and in ways and scales that the private sector cannot. I’m certainly in favor of all kinds of regulations, including those against distracted driving—because not only are cars coffins, they are quite efficient at putting bystanders in them as well. But when it comes to distracted walking, is there a victim other than the distracted walker? Is it anyone else’s job to protect us from ourselves? Will anyone walking distractedly even see a sign that says “pick your head up, nitwit”?

Put another way: If you don’t have the sense to pay attention while crossing the street, if a car doesn’t get you, something else will. Only the strong survive, right Allen? They’re not called the Darwin Awards for nothing.

I’m always wary of those Buzzfeedy “X things I’d rather the government spend my money on rather than this thing” because, 1) I can’t imagine we’re talking about all that much money for an awareness campaign and 2) the government’s job is to make some unpopular spending decisions as per the “you can please some people some of the time” corollary.

That said, there’s a whole galaxy of things I’d  rather see the city spend money on than a “look both ways” law. Here are 10 of them:

  1. Reopening the 20th and Bainbridge spraygrounds (so much fun!).
  2. Legislation outlawing distracted gambling.
  3. E-lanes for pedestrians on Ecstasy.
  4. Recycling … of awareness campaigns. “Un-LitterDistracted Walker Us” has a certain ring, no?
  5. A campaign aimed at awareness of the Broad-Ridge Spur.
  6. A fund that rewards administration officials for calling nitwit citizens “nitwits.” (See also, “idiots and assholes.”)
  7. More YouTube videos featuring people bumping into Mayor Nutter.
  8. More YouTube videos of Mayor Nutter rapping.
  9. Repaving the streets where asphalt has warped or buckled during this summer’s heat wave, creating a real pedestrian hazard even for those who are paying attention.
  10. A school. Any school.