Southern Brooklyn

For Former Senator Carl Kruger, Does Validation Come Too Little Too Late?

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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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