Rules of the Road

Distracted driving more dangerous than impaired driving, but is it illegal for cyclists?

Both the talking and texting laws apply only to drivers of motor vehicles, not cyclists. 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.
Both the talking and texting laws apply only to drivers of motor vehicles, not cyclists. 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. The Bellingham Herald

Question: I see bike riders, in traffic, riding with their cellphones up to their ear. Shouldn’t they have to follow the same no-cellphone laws that vehicle drivers do?

Answer: “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 cellphone while driving increases the likelihood of a crash. Talking on a phone has similar crash rates to drivers with a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level. Texting while driving has crash rates more like a driver with a 0.20 percent blood alcohol level.

Going beyond crash data, the TV show “MythBusters” put a couple of crew members on a closed track and compared talking on a phone with 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 cellphone while driving than they did while driving impaired.

The staff of Car and Driver magazine conducted a similar test with similar results. Using a phone while driving clearly impairs driving ability.

There have been lots 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-cellphone 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-cellphone 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 thought 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 10 times that much, and a typical sport-utility vehicle is more like 25 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 with cars.

We have cellphone and texting laws to protect us from each other, and most people are happy to have these laws. According to the data, about 70 percent of drivers support distracted driving laws. Seventy percent 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 percent 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 cellphone 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 smartphone 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.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information, go to TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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