Rules of the Road

Is it legal to text while riding a bike under Washington’s distracted driving law?

What you must know about Washington’s distracted driving law

Washington state's distracted driving law strictly limits what you can and can't do with your cellphone while driving.
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Washington state's distracted driving law strictly limits what you can and can't do with your cellphone while driving.

Question: Is it legal to text while riding bike on a public road? I saw this yesterday.

Answer: This seems like a great opportunity for “Traffic Law vs. Best Practice, Episode 2.”

A few weeks ago we covered several examples of how the law sets a pretty low standard for road user behavior. Those cases were all for drivers, so this time let’s focus on bike riders.

Should you text while riding bike on a public road? No, of course not. That would be ridiculous.

Is it legal? Pretty much. I’ll explain.

Washington’s distracted driving law (or if you want to focus on the positive, our attentive driving law) applies to any person that is “driving a motor vehicle on a public highway.” Since a bicycle is a vehicle, but not a motor vehicle, cyclists are not included in this law.

“But wait,” you might ask, “Doesn’t the law require cyclists to abide by the same law as drivers?”

You’re right, there is a law that states that “every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway ... shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle ...” However, that law ends with, “except as to those provisions ... which by their nature can have no application.”

Since a bike isn’t a motor vehicle, this law, as I understand it, doesn’t apply. When it comes to texting (arguably one of the more dangerous behaviors on the road) cyclists get a pass.

If we really wanted to stretch the boundaries of the law, maybe we could apply the one titled, “Carrying articles.” Cyclists are prohibited from carrying anything that doesn’t let them keep at least one hand on the handlebars. If it takes two hands to text, a cyclist could, if you’re willing to ignore the original intent of the law be in violation of that rule.

It was written in 1965 — long before cell phones — when the concern was about carrying packages that were actually big enough to require two hands. Like I said, it’s a stretch.

At least as nuts as texting while cycling is riding a bike while impaired. Again, this isn’t prohibited by Washington law, although a first reading of our impaired driving law might suggest otherwise.

The first sentence of the law uses the phrase, “drives a vehicle,” and as mentioned above, the definition of vehicle in Washington law includes bicycles. Here’s the catch; the language in the DUI law was written in 1987, and Washington didn’t consider bicycles to be vehicles until 1991.

In 1995 a cyclist was arrested and convicted for riding while impaired, but the Washington Court of Appeals overturned the decision, concluding that the original intent of the legislature did not include bicycles. Of course, their conclusion was more involved than that, so if you want the complicated version, I suggest looking up City of Monsanto vs. Wells for some light reading.

While some states do have laws against cycling while impaired, Washington is not one of those states.

That doesn’t mean impaired cyclists get a free pass to ride like Shriners in a parade down city streets. If an officer believes that an impaired cyclist is a threat to public safety, the officer can impound the bicycle until the rider is sober and once again safe to ride.

Also, if a cyclist commits a traffic violation that applies to bicycles while either texting or impaired, an officer can cite the cyclist for the violation.

It might seem like a legislative oversight to have not included cyclists in the distracted driving and DUI laws. However, the language in the Monsanto vs. Wells conclusion makes it clear that it’s intentional.

The court pointed out that the inherent difference between cycling and driving is “the severe threat to the public safety ... that arises from combining sharply impaired physical and mental faculties with a vehicle capable of great force and speed.”

The court went on to state that because bicycles do not have the force and speed of cars, a drunk bicyclist is not capable of causing the tremendous “carnage and slaughter” associated with impaired driving.

The legislature, it turns out, didn’t underestimate the capacity of our species to do dumb stuff; they instead concluded that riding a bicycle while intoxicated poses a danger, but the risk to the public is not comparable to an impaired person driving a car.

While not stated explicitly in the distracted driving law, I suspect the legislature reached the same conclusion about distracted cycling.

Whether in a car, on a bike, or on foot, to truly be a safe road user, we need to make our personal standards higher than the requirements of the law.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.

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