Q&A: Yvan Baker, the MPP who wants to fine people for crossing the street while staring at their phones

Q&A: Yvan Baker, the MPP who wants to fine people for crossing the street while staring at their phones

On Monday, Liberal MPP Yvan Baker introduced a private member’s bill called the “Phones Down, Heads Up Act.” The proposed legislation would fine pedestrians up to $125 for using their mobile devices while crossing the street. There’s no question that pedestrian fatalities are a major issue in the GTA: just last month four people were struck and killed over the course of 24 hours in Mississauga. Still, critics of Baker’s bill say it’s a classic example of victim-blaming and legislative overreach. We spoke with him about that criticism, about his own cellphone habits, and about the one place where he definitely will never take a selfie.

What made you decide to introduce this bill?
Several months ago, I started to hear from my constituents about their concerns about pedestrians who were being hurt and killed on Ontario’s roads. Shortly after that, there was a pedestrian killed in the Bloor and Royal York area, which is close to where I live. I started to look into the issue and what I discovered is that experts say pedestrians are often killed because they’re distracted. In 2010, Ontario’s chief coroner found that in seven per cent of pedestrian fatalities, people were distracted by their phones.

Seven per cent doesn’t feel that high. What about the other 93 percent?
Obviously, there are a lot of pedestrian fatalities that have to do with other factors—distracted driving and impaired driving, for instance. The provincial government has taken a lot of significant steps to address those problems, whereas this issue of distracted walking hasn’t been addressed. I understand that people might argue that this is a small part of a large problem, but from my perspective, if this legislation could save even one life a year, that would be more than worth it.

But is that really a reasonable standard for lawmaking? There are a lot of things the government could legislate if the goal was just to save lives: a ban on cars, for example.
I think it will save more than one life a year. I’m just saying that as a bare minimum. I don’t think that it is overreaching. This bill is consistent with how we protect road users every day—with laws against jaywalking, distracted driving, not wearing safety belts. I think most people would agree that those are prudent laws intended to save lives. Over the last few days, I have been out there on the streets approaching pedestrians who are on their phones, crossing the road. I’ve told them about the bill and asked them what they think, and they’ve all said they think it’s a good idea—even though they were on their phones!

I’m surprised nobody said, “Get lost buddy, I’m playing Candy Crush.”
No, not a single person said that. I think people support ideas that keep them safer.

NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has spoken out against the bill, saying that it’s a form of victim-blaming.
This is not about pointing a finger or holding any group responsible. This is about saving lives and raising awareness.

If I’m being fined $125 for texting while crossing, that feels a lot like I’m being held responsible.
I think it will be very rare that people will get the $125 fine, which is for the third offence. The first offense fine is $50, and the idea is that fining people acts as a deterrent.

Okay, but regardless of the amount, is this not a case of misdirected culpability? In the vast majority of pedestrian fatalities in Ontario, it was the pedestrian who has had the right of way. One could argue that the bill lets motorists off the hook to some degree.
I don’t think it lets them off the hook at all. Just for clarification, the bill actually has two components. There is the banning of the use of mobile devices while crossing the road, and there is another piece that requires the Ministry of Transportation to hold an annual awareness campaign around the risks of distracted driving—texting and driving in particular. And as I said, there are a number of initiatives currently addressing all of the various reasons that pedestrians are killed on the road. The government of Ontario recently increased the fines for distracted drivers and for repeat offenders.

What are your own cellphone habits like?
I use my cellphone a lot and am often very absorbed in it. I’m a big user of social media. Recently, my caucus colleagues have started calling me Mr. Selfie because I like to take selfies at events. And that’s okay. The issue is when being on your phone compromises safety.

So that’s a no on “intersection selfies”?
Ha–exactly. I have noticed that my habits have changed. I was just talking about that with my colleagues, how just by having these conversations, we are raising awareness. My hope is that the bill will someday pass, but I also feel like the attention is a good thing regardless, because it has started a conversation.