Texting while walking not a crime in Phila. Honest

Posted: July 20, 2011

Walking down a crowded street while tapping out a text message may be annoying, rude and even dangerous, but it's not a crime in Philadelphia.

This information does conflict with multiple television and Internet reports disseminated on Tuesday - some of which undoubtedly were viewed by pedestrians on their mobile devices.

On Tuesday, news outlets and Internet sites - from Good Morning America to Gawker - erroneously reported that texting while walking could result in a $120 fine in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia police are, in fact, cracking down on dangerous and distracting cellphone use as part of a larger education program aimed at drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

But the most a police officer can do to people texting while walking is to "remind them to be careful," according to Mayor Nutter's office.

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said he spent half his day fielding calls from the national media to douse the misinformation. Nutter himself felt obliged to Tweet the truth Tuesday morning.

"We got hammered," McDonald said. "You just can't imagine the calls from all over the place."

The idea of handing out fines for walking and texting was perfect blog fodder, with two tongue-in-cheek camps on the issue.

One viewed the notion as evidence of a Taliban-like police state emerging in the city. The other applauded the idea and urged even more drastic - even violent - punishment.

One writer, Gawker's Max Read, mockingly suggested summary execution for violators. McDonald couldn't let that one pass quietly.

"Your whack job reporter can spin his puerile fantasies about doing violence to people he does not like, but he first needs to get his facts straight. Indeed, Max might want to do a little READING before he writes," McDonald wrote, in a message posted on Gawker.

The mix-up came after an ambiguously-worded local news report about the city's "Give Respect, Get Respect" program left open the possibility of fines for texting while walking.

Police are actually only ticketing distracted drivers and cyclists who ride on sidewalks or otherwise disregard traffic rules.

The goal of the program, officials said, is to educate the public. Since the campaign started in May, nearly 600 bicyclists and 100 drivers have been warned about dangerous behavior, according to the mayor's office.

The city did not say how many pedestrians may have been "reminded to be more aware of their surroundings."

McDonald acknowledged a possible unintended consequence of all the rumors Tuesday - widespread coverage of a program that previously had received little media attention.

"I just hope that drivers and people on bicycles and people walking on the streets watch out for each other a little bit more," he said. "Everybody needs to be a little nicer to each other."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com or @troyjgraham on Twitter.

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