Q: I see bike riders, in traffic, riding with their cell phones up to their ear. Shouldn’t they have to follow the same no-cell-phone laws that vehicle drivers do?
A: “Should they” and “Are they required by law” are two different questions. Despite some drivers refusing to admit it, we have data to show that using a cell phone while driving increases the likelihood of a crash. Talking on a phone has similar crash rates to drivers with a .08 blood alcohol level. Texting while driving has crash rates more like a driver with a .20 blood alcohol level.
Going beyond crash data, the TV show Mythbusters put a couple of their crew on a closed track and compared talking on a phone to driving drunk, all while being evaluated by a driving instructor. Both drivers passed the course when undistracted and sober, but failed when on the phone and when impaired. They actually scored worse using a cell phone while driving than they did while driving impaired. The magazine staff of Car and Driver conducted a similar test with similar results. Using a phone while driving clearly impairs driving ability.
There have been a lot of studies on distracted driving, and not many on distracted cycling. However, a study in the Netherlands shows that crashes increase for distracted cyclists just like they do for drivers. And riding a bicycle leaves a much narrower margin of error; a cyclist doesn’t have a steel cage protecting himself from his own foolishness. Should cyclists follow the same no-cell-phone rules as drivers? Absolutely. They should. It’s a simple way to reduce the chance of a crash.
But are cyclists required by law to follow the same no-cell-phone rules as drivers? Nope. Both the talking and texting laws apply only to drivers of motor vehicles. Does that seem like a double standard to you? As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t presume to know the mind of our legislators; I only get to see, like you, the outcome of their legislation. Maybe they though it was so obvious we didn’t need a law. In a car you have seat belts, air bags and crumple zones to protect you. On a bike, not so much. What kind of cyclist would take that kind of risk? Apparently, plenty. Maybe they thought that the limited potential to cause damage to others didn’t justify a law. A bike and rider weigh somewhere around 200 pounds or so; the lightest cars on the road are ten times that much, and a typical SUV is more like twenty-five times as heavy as a cyclist. Add the momentum of the vehicle and the potential damage is exponential. Cyclists just don’t present much threat compared to cars.
We have cell phone and texting laws to protect us from each other, and most people are happy to have these laws. According to the data, about 70% of drivers support distracted driving laws. (70% of drivers also admit to talking on a phone or texting while driving in the past month. What does that say about our ability to control our behavior?) In contrast, during the early years of seat belt legislation, about 70% of drivers were opposed to the laws. Even though we know seat belts save lives, people are often opposed to laws that limit personal choice, even if that choice increases risk, as long as that choice doesn’t impact other people. I submit that talking on a cell phone while cycling is categorically different than using a seat belt, because seat belt use (or lack of use) affects the user, while the harm of distracted cycling can easily extend beyond the cyclist.
This year, Washington will be considering an update to our distracted driving law. The current law was passed the same year that the iPhone was released, essentially making our law somewhat obsolete the day it was enacted. The current law addresses only texting, which has become a small portion of what a smart phone is capable of. If passed, the revised law will be more comprehensive regarding phones and distraction, but I don’t expect it will include cyclists.
While we might like a law that keeps bike riders off their phones, we can’t depend solely on laws to make good driving and biking decisions. Even without a law prohibiting talking on the phone while cycling, it just makes sense to keep your phone in a pocket and your eyes on the road.