MONTCLAIR—Every day after school Our Lady of Lourdes eighth grader Nicola Martinez looked out toward the intersection of Orchard Street and Central Avenue in Montclair and she began to notice something that worried her.
Many of her peers were walking toward the intersection talking on their cell phones and perhaps unaware of where they were in relationship to oncoming traffic. But whereas many students who made such an observation would simply hope and pray that no harm come to students and other pedestrians, Nicola thought about how she might affect this problem through local public policy.
It helped that her mother, Trisha, is a member of the Montclair City Council, and it so happened that a local ordinance had been proposed that would ban pedestrians from using their mobile devices while crossing a city street or highway.
“It kind of interested me because I know that is a problem around here,” Nicola said. “[Looking at your phone] can distract you from seeing the cars.”
According to studies cited in the Montclair ordinance:
• An estimated 30 percent of pedestrians engage in distracting activities while crossing streets, including talking on the phone, text messaging or listening to music
• Half of students aged 15-19 report use of a mobile electronic device when walking to and from school
• People distracted by their mobile electronic devices are four times more likely to ignore traffic lights, cross outside the crosswalk or not look both ways before crossing a street
Nicola learned that residents of the City are allowed to speak to the City Council in support or opposition to proposed local ordinances through the public comment period. So on December 4 last year she filled out her public comment slip and waited for her chance to speak to the city leaders.
“Almost every day I see children walking without adult supervision with their devices and I know that this can be a major distraction,” she told the Council.
Her mother, for the record, had no idea that her daughter intended to address the City Council.
“She’s always been very active in the community. Civil service is nothing new to her,” Councilwoman Martinez said of Nicola, who is the Eighth Grade Class Representative in student government at Our Lady of the Lourdes. “The bravery… that was new.”
Nicola demonstrates a composed, matter-of-fact demeanor about her foray into the world of Montclair politics but she admits she was nervous when she stepped to the dais to speak.
“I learned that it’s tough to speak in front of people,” she said. “There were a lot of ‘ums’ in there.”
So did Nicola’s testimony have the impact she was hoping for? After some discussion to explore questions about how the new ordinance would be enforced and how it might impact out-of-town visitors, the Council voted unanimously to approve it. It is now a local law.
“I felt happy,” Nicola said of the vote. “I knew that this is a problem that’s finally going to get solved.”
She doesn’t have any immediate plans to return to City Hall but Nicola says she wouldn’t hesitate to address the Council if any issue arises that she thinks is important. She says she prayed about whether or not to speak in favor of the Pedestrians and Mobile Device Ordinance.
“There was a part of me that said, ‘there’s really not a need for me to say anything,’ but in the end, I really felt the need to.”