Distracted pedestrian bill goes to Senate

Since October 2017, you would be cited in Honolulu if you cross a crosswalk while busy on your phone. This law was enacted reportedly in response to a high number of people being hit in crosswalks. Now the CNMI House of Representatives is looking at the idea and debating about it.

At their session last Friday afternoon, in an unanticipated back and forth, members of the House debated whether or not they should pass legislation that would penalize distracted pedestrians in the CNMI, as proposed in House Bill 21-51.

The measure’s author, Rep. Joseph “Lee Pan” Guerrero (R-Saipan), was absent from the session. The bill ultimately garnered a vote of 13-3, sending the bill to the Senate for review and action.

Independent lawmakers Reps. Ed Propst (Ind-Saipan), Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan), and Tina Sablan (Ind-Saipan) voted against the measure.

In the first round of discussions on the bill, Sablan said that regulating the behavior of pedestrians who are walking while using their cellphones deserves more discussion and further study.

“…I understand. I’ve seen some of the literature on distracted walking and associations of injuries but there is also literature that suggests making it a crime or infraction and putting the burden on law enforcement to regulate this behavior could also have unintended consequences,” Sablan said.

As outlined in the bill, it will impose a fine of no less than $25 and no more than $50 for a first offense. A second offense within one year will result in a fine of no less than $50 and no more than $100; a third and subsequent offenses within the same year of the first offense will result in a fine of no less than $100 and no more than $150.

Seventy-five percent of the collected fines will be deposited into a revolving fund separate from the general fund, and will be used for “educational and enforcement” purposes, while the remaining 25 percent of the fines will be used for proper signage fixtures and road, crosswalk, and lighting repair and maintenance.

Sablan questioned whether this was really a problem that should be addressed by passing legislation instead of simple public education. Further, Sablan pointed out that creating legislation that penalizes pedestrians who are distracted puts the blame on the victim if an accident does occur, which Sablan was not in favor of.

Propst echoed Sablan’s comments but proposed not killing the bill and simply just sending it back to the committee for further review. Propst added that meeting with government agencies to gather enough evidence to make the legislation a need was ideal before putting the bill up for action.

“…Guerrero’s intentions are noble and he is obviously coming from a safety perspective and that it is a concern but, at the same time, we cannot ignore what this legislation proposes,” he said, adding that he wishes to see local statistics for all three islands to see how big of a problem it was to “demand legislation.”

Rep. Roman Benavente (R-Saipan) sees it differently.

“…I am looking at it [from] a safety [perspective]…I’ve seen [distracted pedestrians] all in the Garapan area. Tourists crossing and they have their phones…and literally staying on the road,” he said, asking if that was fair for motorists.

“…Maybe [Propst] is right that we should probably revisit and [study the bill further], but public education and information is not a bad thought,” he added.

House Judicial and Government Operations chair Rep. Joel Camacho (R-Saipan), the committee that reviewed the legislation, noted that his committee sees the bill as a deterrent.

“…The concern was not coming from our people; it was more on tourists, or people that are not from the CNMI,” he said, acknowledging that there could be an enforcement issue if the bill is enacted. “…I am ready to vote on this legislation and as a chairman…I was able to talk to some policemen and they were in support of the legislation as it is now.”

“The way I looked at it was more of a proactive approach and a preventative approach,” he said, adding that he did not want to look at more statistics and that he did not receive any comments from government agencies on the bill.

Babauta noted that it would be just as effective to support the Department of Public Safety by helping educate the youth and tourists on the laws on the road.

“I think that will be more effective and…I just want to ensure that we create laws that are enforceable. I don’t believe that, at this time, we have the resources to fully enforce this law,” she said.

The House discussed the bill and went two full rounds before passing the legislation.

Erwin Encinares | Reporter
Erwin Charles Tan Encinares holds a bachelor’s degree from the Chiang Kai Shek College and has covered a wide spectrum of assignments for the Saipan Tribune. Encinares is the paper’s political reporter.
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