Former State Senator Carl Kruger. Image source: Reason.tv. Illustration composite by Erica Sherman

With seemingly little fanfare, a seven-sentence story by Agence France Presse, with the headline “Death toll among pedestrians wearing headphones triples,” popped up on Yahoo News a while back. It is all but forgotten about now, having first appeared mid-January, but the subject merits revisiting. The Yahoo link is borked, but you can read it on any number of websites by going here.

The story reported the results of a study, which revealed that “[T]he annual tally [of US pedestrians killed or badly injured while wearing headphones] rose from 16 in 2004 to 47 in 2011, bringing the total of cases to 116 over this period.” Researchers of the study, headed by Richard Lichenstein of the University of Maryland Hospital for Children, in Baltimore, further warned of an “inattentional blindness,” or “a distraction that lowers the resources the brain devotes to external stimuli.”

The results of the study — conclusive data parsed from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News, and the legal database, Westlaw — were published in the British journal, Injury Prevention.

At the time the story appeared, a cursory search of the word “headphones” into Google News generated upward of 330 results, all citing the same Lichenstein study. It surfaced in The Daily NewsFox News Radio…  the L Magazine picked it up from The Daily News, adding that the NYPD’s 34th Precinct “created its own texting-while-walking awareness campaign last year.” The results of the research were also published in The Washington ExaminerABC NewsMetro New YorkNBC Washington, and hundreds of other media sources all over the web.

The one conspicuously absent item missing from those 330+ stories was any mention of the 27th Senate District’s now former legislator, Carl Kruger.

More than five years ago, Kruger — to unanimous hissing and heckling — proposed a controversial bill, S.1945, which would hit ‘inattentionally blind’ pedestrians in cities with more than a million citizens up for a cool C-note and civil summons if they traveled across a street by foot or bicycle with an iPod, or other digital device, plugged into their ears. He reintroduced the bill again last year because of an alarming increase in fatalities.

Whether purposeful, or an oversight, the omission from every single media source of the name “Carl Kruger” — whom everyone scoffed atmade fun of, and said particularly rotten things about for championing such radical legislation — is tantamount to writing a thesis about early 20th century Chicago slaughterhouses and failing to invoke the name Upton Sinclair.

In a press release sent out last year, Kruger tried to appeal that, “You can’t be fully aware of your surroundings if you’re fiddling with a Blackberry, dialing a phone number, playing Super Mario Brothers on a Game Boy or listening to music on an iPod.”

Nevertheless, the political blog, Room Eight, chastised Kruger for “proposing the stupidest idea of the year.” After being named a Daily News Knucklehead in 2007, he was selected as first runner up for the coveted Knucklehead of the Year Award (they also sardonically noted that, “Along with his Knucklehead Award, Kruger was presented with a GPS system to help him locate his brain”), and, in early 2011, when he tried to reintroduce the bill to the legislature, he also had the dubious honor of being selected as ReasonTV’s January “Nanny of the Month,” for having the audacity to propose such odious legislation. ReasonTV’s narrator then suggested that government should lock up the former pol’s own fridge, “for his own good,” because “Kruger is not the slimmest of senators.”

Take a look:

The vast majority of Americans don’t particularly appreciate “nanny state” laws — regulations characterized by government’s interference in our lives, decreeing what we must eat, drink, and wear — but Kruger, during an interview with CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer, explained that “When people are doing things that are detrimental to their own well being, then government should step in.”

Kruger was still met with resistance and conjecture. “Tom’s Guide: Tech For Real Life” blogger Tuan Mai suggested that “this bill may be going a bit overboard,” because, as Mai puts it, “[it has not] gotten to the point where joggers are throwing themselves at moving vehicles because they are too busy rocking out to The Grateful Dead.” Said Mai:

Although the senator may not be able to look in both directions while focused on trying to figure out the complicated device that is an ipod in his hands, we’re full confident that our readers and a majority of the population have no problems with this. We’ve personally yet to see somebody mindlessly cross the street into a horde of oncoming cars. In addition to the impracticality of this law, it is not likely to be easily enforced and would probably cause more trouble than it solves.

Even the grieving co-worker of Jason King, a young man who was killed by a Mack truck while crossing a street, listening to an iPod, had no interest in Kruger’s bill. According to King’s colleague, Josephina Medina: “I mean I, myself, I walk around in the street hearing music because I don’t want to hear nobody around me or nothing.”

During Kruger’s first attempt in 2007 at introducing the so-called “iPod Bill,” he said he wasn’t trying to intrude on that [pedestrians listening to iPods in public], but people, he said, were absentmindedly walking into buses and moving automobiles — in some cases speeding trains — and something clearly had to be done.

When a law cracking down on “distracted driving” — called an “epidemic” by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood — was recently updated, no one stormed the New York State Capitol in protest, in favor of distracted driving. People seem to be in universal agreement that texting and driving is, at best, an exceptionally irresponsible and stupid thing to do. At worst, deadly. So, where were the members of the Pro-Distracted Driving Lobby on July 12, 2011, the day the bill was updated by Governor Cuomo? One can only surmise that they were all wearing their Hades caps of invisibility in a devious bid to sneak into the governor’s office and steal all his bill-signing pens.

In their comprehensive 2006 study entitled “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver” [PDF], the University of Utah in Salt Lake City’s David L. Strayer, Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouchz determined that “the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk” and, subsequent to such findings, the now-current law states that “It is illegal for drivers to use handheld electronic devices while their vehicle is in motion” and that “cell phone use requires a hands-free device.”

That’s just for driving.

For the time-honored tradition of walking, Fast Company’s David Lavenda cites an Ohio State University study, which found that “[M]ore than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they were distracted and tripped, fell, or ran into something while using a cell phone to talk or text. The study also showed that young people were more likely to injure themselves than adults. Half of the people injured were under the age of 30; a quarter of those were between the ages of 16 and 20.”

Kruger’s bill would have fined pedestrians who crossed the street with headphones plugged into their ears or while operating an electrical handheld device, $100. The fine for being caught operating a handheld device while operating a vehicle is $150 (plus two points off your license).

In a remarkably measured response to the Knucklehead debacle, Kruger penned a letter to The Daily News, explaining:

My legislation barring pedestrians and cyclists from crossing the street while using an iPod, cell phone or other electronic device came in response to several traffic fatalities in our city in recent months (“Attack on the iPod people,” editorial, Feb. 8). All the victims had headphones on and were listening to music. None of the victims had any idea what hit them — in one case, a city bus.

Similar concerns regarding traffic-related inattention a few years ago led to the law mandating hands-free cell phone use behind the wheel. This law was widely touted for eliminating needless and potentially tragic consequences.

My bill and the accompanying $100 penalty send the message that pedestrians must pay full attention to their surroundings while crossing the street — not an easy task even when you’re not holding a cell phone or tuning in an iPod — and not be distracted by music or an engrossing phone conversation, both of which can easily drown out a blaring car horn.

Regardless, he still stirred up the public’s outrage for proposing a bill that was intrinsically, and irrefutably similar to the anti-distracted driving measure. Was one easier to enforce than the other? Is it easier for law enforcement to catch up to a car occupied by a distracted driver tweeting on his smartphone about how annoyed he is by the slow-moving 80-year-old in the 1988 Plymouth Reliant in front of him than it is to apprehend a citizen on the verge of carelessly waltzing into speeding traffic lest they be turned into road pizza?

When Kruger was trying to drum up support for the legislation — which would have not only saved lives, but would have further spared pedestrians the profound humiliation that comes from texting ones way straight into a shopping mall’s water fountain (in a video to go viral on YouTube), or boogying their iPod-listening self smack into the side of the train — he received unyielding contempt from the national media.

The iPod Bill eventually died in committee, and nobody wanted to touch it the second time around either. While first trying to foster support for the measure, he told FOX News in early 2007:

I think it’s necessary if we just look at the statistics that bear out the argument that people, while being too into their electronic gadgetry, are tuning out the rest of the world. They are becoming a statistical fatality, they are being part of an accident scene. They are basically jeopardizing their well-being as well as the well-being of others around them.

In a Time Magazine piece on the results of the 2012 study, journalist Alice Park writes that “Headphones… serve to isolate users from their environment, cocooning them so that they’re less aware of what’s going on around them,” and lead researcher Lichenstein concurred, explaining that “The actual sensory deprivation that results from using headphones with electronic devices may be a unique problem in pedestrian incidents, where auditory cues can be more important than visual ones.”

After the 27th Senate District’s special election today, it will mark the first time since 1994 that a politician other than Carl Kruger will occupy the seat’s district office. Five years have passed since Kruger first proposed his iPod Bill; headphone and gadget-related fatalities continue to rise, and Lichenstein and his team of researchers have released the aforementioned “statistics that bear out the argument.”

So, was the iPod Bill just another legislative gambit that would have effectively peeled away an additional layer from the protective barrier that discourages government from infringing on the rights of inattentive, iPod-listening pedestrians? Or, can the 62-year-old Kruger — now watching the seconds tick by until he is sentenced to federal prison next month — mutter an “I told you so” to longtime detractors, who relished dragging him over hot coals in the media all these years? Was the former legislator out of touch with reality, or five years ahead of the curve?

Who will be that one brave soul to come forward and admit that maybe Carl Kruger was right about S.1945  from the very beginning?

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  • BayResident

    Sometimes I feel like SheepsheadBites needs a “tl;dr” for its posts.

    Am I the only one that doesn’t want to spend this much time validating Kruger?

    • Tinman

      You just did! LOL

      • BayResident

        Nonsense. I just skimmed and pretended to know what I’m talking about. ;)

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

       Sometimes crooked politicians are also competent representatives.

  • NSF

    Though there was a decent motive behind his proposal, it was, as a blogger wrote at the time, paternalistic government run amok, which deservedly earned him the Daily News’ “Knucklehead Award.” The tabloid also wondered if he would prohibit daydreaming next and called his legislation “stupid beyond stupid.”
    You can’t legislate personal responsibility or common sense.All devices with headphones come with warnings about the dangers of turning the volume up so high that you can’t hear what’s going on around you. Of course, most
    consumers rarely read beyond the operating directions.Even if BusyPody Kruger paid more attention to the needs of his district and the state, instead of amassing a small personal fortune and living above his means, he’d still never get validation for his IPod law.

  • BrooklynBus

    I also don’t think you can legislate common sense.   But I also think there is a definite problem here.  As a driver, I constantly see absent-minded people crossing the street paying absoutely no attention to their surroundings.  You can’t just watch the light turn green and assume all traffic is going to stop for you.  At least you need to turn your head to see if there are any speeding cars with no intention of stopping and make eye contact with drivers who do appear to be slowing down and preparing to stop.

    All that becomes more difficult if you are listening to music or are engaged in a phone conversation. Not too long ago when I was driving, a young man was crossing the street where there was no signal or painted crosswalk. Since it was a T intersection, he didn’t even have the right of way but was crossing at a very slow pace, fiddling with a mobile device, and actually stopped in the middle of the street for a few moments. He looked up and saw me coming toward him and gestured as if to tell me he was almost finished with what he was doing and I should be patient and wait for him.  Did he fully realize where he was?

    Yes, Kruger was first to realize this problem and proposed a solution.   Most people including myself viewed his bill skeptically because we doubted his sincerity. Was he really trying to save lives or just raise revenue for the state in the name of public safety.  If it was the former, what ever happened to fines just for the sake of stopping bad behavior.  $25 is still a deterrent.  Who decided that the minimum for any fine must be $100 with some going as high as $500 or $1,000? A $25 fine that is enforced has a bigger impact than a $500 fine that is never enforced.

    • http://assembly.state.ny.us/mem/Steven-Cymbrowitz ES

      Thanks very much for a constructive response. In pedestrian- and transportation-related matters, I genuinely value your opinion.

    • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

      Of course the guy was a jerk for stopping in the middle, but my understanding is, at an unsigned crosswalk, the pedestrian has the right of way. I”m quoting here a New York Safety Council source:

      “Drivers must yield to pedestrians legally using marked or unmarked crosswalks ”

      See my post above. It’s risky for someone to be crossing with an Ipod, but don’t you think drivers should obey the law????  Is the solution to illegal driving that “just watch out, pedestrian”???

  • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

    I say better to go after the cars that are mowing down the pedestrians with IPODS.

          I  don’t doubt there’s a few cases of pedestrians crossing against the light, or without looking.

         However, by and large, this bill is penalizing a person for not looking out for drivers committing crimes: going through red lights, speeding, not giving pedestrians the right of way. HOW ABOUT PUNISHING BAD DRIVING FOR CHRISSAKES, THAT’S THE MAJOR PROBLEM.

       Look how we attack bad driving. We actually reward it.
       1) Since cars regularly go through red lights 2-3 seconds after light change, what do we do? We move back the point where cars must stop for the light; we make the other drivers WAIT for the criminal drivers, how’s that for punishment
    .
       2) How do we penalize speeding and jumping  thel light? We give tickets to IPod users, so the speedsters can keep speeding and have the way clear for them.

        What’s next? Let’s tell storeowners to leave their stores open all night so robbers can take freely and at least not hurt anyone.  Let’s carry a spare IPAD so we can hand one to a robber so we don’t get hurt. 

         This is freaking  insane. No wonder people speed and go  through lights. These bad drivers are actually HAVING THE WAY PAVED FOR THEM!

  • BrooklynBus

    Of course drivers should obey the law, but you are incorrect about pedestrians having the right of way at T intersections without traffic signals.  It states as you state in quotes but if you check the definition of a crosswalk in section 4-01 http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/trafrule.pdf it specifically excludes T intersections from the definition of a crosswalk.  It states for it to be considered a crosswalk, ”the roadway crosses through the intersection rather than ending at the intersection.”  That means the right of way rule does not apply at T intersections.  Still if someone is crossing, cars still must stop to avoid hitting someone 404 (d).
     

    • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

      Thank u for the correction.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

     The only way to control this would be by law, since most people believe that the worse case scenario won’t happen to them. They very conveniently forget the close calls they’ve had already.

    • BrooklynBus

      But a law with a reasonable fine that is enforced from time to time.  Not with a high fine that is meant to scare you and is forgotten about as soon as the ink is dry or is enforced only when a cop is looking to fulfill a ticket quota when he sees someone he that he doesn’t like the way he or she is dressed or their ethinc origin or just had an argument with.

      I once got a ticket for blocking two inches of the sidewalk because my car was sticking out a little from the driveway.  A neighbor told me that a cop had just had an argument with someone on the block and was looking for someone else on the block to get even with so he could feel better.  That is not how to enforce the law.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

        This is not the type of law which serves no purpose other than to enforce rules presumably for the sake of a orderly society. I do agree that the fine does not have to be high. But I also believe that a court appearance should be mandatory, because the nuisance of a court appearance will make the impact of the event more lasting upon the individual.

        Arbitrary enforcement of laws is never good thing. A certain amount of discretion should be exercised, and I suppose usually is. But when ticket quotas are used to either increase diligence or revenue the strictest definition of the law will be used. And the result is that many people come to feel that ticketing for any reason is not an acceptable solution for societal problems.

        • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

          So, as I read this proposed law, and knowing the laxness of punishing drivers around here, if a pedestrian crosses a normal street with no sign, using an Ipod, and gets hit by a car, the event will be ruled an accident on the auto’s part (as it usually is), and the pedestrian will be hit with a fine.
             That doesn’t sound fair to me, needless to say.

          • nolastname

            1152. Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right of way to all vehicles upon the roadway…..1964-65 Vehicle and Traffic Law. This is from when Rockefeller was Governor. 

          • nolastname

            1151 is interesting also.

          • BrooklynBus

            Except as I pointed out because of the definition of “crosswalk” which I don’t agree with, a pedestrian does not have the right of way at a T intersection when crossing the main street. You should have the right of way at those corners with respect to turning vehicles, but it is confusing.

          • nolastname

            110b. Any portion of a roadway at an intersection or elsewhere distinctly indicated for pedestrians crossing by lines or other markings on the surface.
              To stay in these guidelines is with pedestrians best judgement.  Other wise run as freaking fast as you can. lol

          • PayPaul

             Drivers always get the easy treatment when it comes to people they injure or kill with their vehicles. Ban pedestrians from walking around with “mobile” devices beacause they might injure themselves or others? With tha logic of this bill applied one should have a law banning autoMOBILEs.