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Editorial: Albuquerque law focuses on safety of drivers, pedestrians

Through September of this year 51 pedestrians have died on New Mexico roads. Seventy-seven pedestrians were killed in 2016; 55 in 2015; 74 in 2014; 53 in 2013. Not a month goes by in the Land of Enchantment that someone isn’t struck by a vehicle and killed.

And while there are many factors in those many deaths, the common denominator is physics – flesh and blood is no match for steel wrapped around a combustion engine.

So why would anyone argue in favor of flesh-and-blood human beings standing inches from high-speed traffic?

They shouldn’t.

Last week the Albuquerque City Council unanimously approved a carefully crafted ordinance as a pedestrian and traffic safety measure. It requires the mayor’s signature and will go into effect five days after it’s published. And while its origins are in curbing the burgeoning number of panhandlers on metro-area medians and corners, and opponents might classify it as an anti-panhandling law or an unconstitutional attack on their free speech, it is neither.

City Councilor Trudy Jones sponsored the measure, which prohibits soliciting motorists at medians and on sidewalks and also makes it illegal for motorists to physically interact with solicitors. Under it a driver can be cited for physically engaging with pedestrians while in a travel lane. How forcefully the city’s understaffed police department will enforce it is a different question entirely.

But the fact remains that when drivers are behind the wheel, they should be focused on driving safely – not texting, not fiddling with the GPS, and not handing cash to or taking flyers from individuals representing charities, youths holding car washes, or yes, panhandlers.

The ACLU has long argued it’s unconstitutional for municipalities to prohibit people from begging for money in public spaces because it’s a form of free speech. We would argue public safety should define what are appropriate public spaces – under that rationale places including medians, highway overpasses and railroad crossings that are designed for motor vehicles, not speechifying, wouldn’t qualify.

In a 2015 case that had nothing to do with panhandling but set a precedent that applies to any local regulations that limit certain types of speech, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the town of Gilbert, Ariz., which had passed an ordinance restricting where signs for religious services could be displayed. In Reed v. the Town of Gilbert, the court ruled that government regulations curtailing free speech have to be as narrow as possible and must fulfill a “compelling government interest.”

In the wake of that ruling, several municipal anti-panhandling ordinances were struck down on the premise they restricted panhandlers’ constitutional right to free speech. And in fact Albuquerque had a stringent panhandling ordinance that was struck down more than a decade ago for violating free speech and due process rights.

But this new law correctly focuses on the safety of everyone, not the speech of a specific segment of the population. And not facilitating human carnage on public roads sure sounds like a “compelling government interest.” Further, as Jones says, those who would flag down motorists from medians will still “have as much free speech as they want. They just have to put it someplace different. We’re not trying to limit their speech; we’re just trying to say it needs to be in a safe place.”

Because you don’t have to be a traffic engineer to understand that medians are constructed to guide traffic, not stand in for the town square. And you don’t have to be a physicist to know a charity volunteer or a high school club member or a panhandler is no match for a coupe, sedan, pickup or SUV – and all deserve to be safe.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.