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Should Distracted Bicycling Be Banned? Umm, No. 3

Bicycling while on Cell Phone

A bicyclist talking on her cell phone – Photo courtesy of otzberg 

The Atlantic City’s Eric Jaffe asks whether distracted bicycling should be banned:

“Whether you’re for or against distracted cycling rules — more on that in a moment — you can’t deny that using a cell phone changes the way a person rides a bike.”

Jaffe notes that the study found that bicyclists ride at a slower speed when a phone is involved, but they also swerve more:

“In every case where a phone was involved, bicycle speed was reduced compared to riders who weren’t engaged in a secondary task. “Lateral position variation” — the technical term for veering or swerving — also increased when cyclists were on their phones. Cyclists on phones also detected fewer signs planted along the bike route. Riders using touch screens generally fared worse than those on conventional phones.”

But why are we trying to solve something that isn’t a real problem? Jaffe presents no evidence to suggest that distracted bicycling is actually a danger to our society. So why are we even talking about it?

Meanwhile, distracted driving in automobiles is actually killing and maiming people – despite the various laws against it. In 2011, 3,331 people were killed by distracted drivers and 387,000 people were injured by distracted drivers.

In a 2011 survey, 69% of drivers in the United States reported they had talked on their cell phone while driving in the 30 days prior to the survey, and 31% of US drivers aged 18-64 reported that they had sent or received text messages while driving in the 30 days prior to the survey.

On the other hand, in a 2011 article, we made the proposition that distracted/wobbly bicyclists may actually have a calming effect on traffic:

“A cyclist who was riding in the bike lane was swerving somewhat erratically (he was probably swerving to avoid a pothole or a sewer on this particular street). She slowed her car down immediately to about 35km/h and moved a bit over to the left to safely pass the “erratic” cyclist.

It got me thinking – that erratic, unpredictable cyclists have a calming effect on traffic. Cars are more cautious, they immediately slow down and as a result – increase the safety of everyone on the street (including cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers).

Instead of creating more barriers and disincentives for people to use bicycles for transportation, why not invest in fixing what is broken, and encouraging people to ride safely? 

Here are a few suggestions that we have for measures that will actually improve safety on our streets:

Build infrastructure to segregate cyclists from fast-moving automobiles

Reduce the speed limit on streets that are shared with cyclists

Enforce distracted driving laws for motorized vehicle drivers

Build traffic calming infrastructure to slow down drivers, especially in residential neighbourhoods.

Raise awareness about cyclists through driver education

Modify traffic laws to take bicyclists into consideration and enforce the laws for both motorists and cyclists

Restrict automobiles from turning right on red lights at certain intersections

Build traffic signals that accommodate cyclists (especially for safe left-hand turns at dangerous intersections)

In the end, Jaffe seems to agree, looking at the cost-benefits of enforcing distracted bicycling versus building safe bike infrastructure:

“As cycling gains in popularity, more cities will have to confront the question of whether or not to ban distracted riding. But before they do, especially in these fiscally challenged times, it’s worth weighing the cost of enforcing the law against that of protecting the public in other ways — namely, creating safer bike infrastructure. One may discourage unsafe behavior from a few riders, sure. The other will encourage safe riding for everyone.”

James D. Schwartz is the Editor of The Urban Country and is based in Toronto, Canada. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

i share the road

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  • jrickards

    I disagree, cyclists on a cell phone, whether dialing or texting or holding the phone in their hand, should not do that. Yes, they may travel slower and their weaving may cause vehicles to slow down and give them a wider bearth but, with one hand on the handlebar, they have less control over steering and their wobbling may not be avoidance of pot holes and the like but overcorrection. We are told to drive our cars with two hands on the wheel to get better control over steering, why shouldn’t that apply to cyclists? It should. Furthermore, giving cyclists a protected lane may prevent the cars from hitting the weaving cyclist but then the weaving, slow cyclist is taking more room and preventing other cyclists from passing.

    If you want to be able to talk on the phone, use a hands-free
    device to receive calls and talk and, when you need to call out
    (assuming your phone doesn’t have voice-activated dialing), stop and
    dial, and texting should be done while stopped too.

  • Bibleman1

    It is totally impossible to talk on a cell phone while riding on only 1 or 2 wheels; you’d fall right over almost immediately.

  • Patchnride

    your post provide awareness related to bicycle rules