Do we need a "public conversation" about using phones while cycling?

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Mark Vitullo

I rolled my eyes when I saw the tweet: Let’s have a public conversation about our phones and cycling - it is bad enough arguing about bike helmets, where people wrapped in 2,000 pounds of steel feel they have the right to tsk tsk people on bikes. Or the non-issue of distracted walking, which is all about control of the roads and shifting responsibility. Now we have to “have a public conversation” about yet another thing that people not in cars are doing. (It's a subject we covered on TreeHugger earlier, in Should texting while cycling be illegal? )

Then I see that it is written by John Lorinc, one of our best writers about urban affairs, and it is in Spacing, one of the best magazines on the subject. So I forced myself to look. Being John, he never says “I am against it”, he writes:

I’d argue that there’s a strong case to be made for a robust public conversation, including public service announcements by bike advocacy groups, about the hazards associated with cycling and texting, as well as further research into the question of what precisely is the nature of the risk.

He notes that he cannot find much evidence of or data regarding the use of phones while cycling, but that the Dutch government is considering a ban because “smart phones “played a role” in about a fifth of young cyclists involved in accidents.”

In fact, there are a few studies on the subject, including one that found that a lot of people were doing it. Given the numbers, it is no surprise that some have accidents. There was also a study by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands which examined 24 participants and found a significant hit on cyclist performance when using phones or listening to headphones:

Bicycle speed was reduced in all telephone conditions and in the condition when cycling next to someone. Lateral position variation [veering or swerving] increased in all telephone conditions. Use of the touch screen led to a more central position in the cycle lane and resulted in worse visual detection performance compared with the operation of a conventional mobile phone. The main effect of listening to music was that an auditory signal to stop cycling was missed by 83% of the participants.

So indeed, there is evidence that listening to music or touching a touchscreen while cycling reduces performance (and slows cyclists down). But the problem with “public discussions” about subjects like this is that they remind me of Casablanca, of Rick asking to talk to Ugarte and being told by Major Strasser that “You would find the conversation a trifle one-sided.”

tesla dashboard© Tesla Dashboard/ no distractions here.

There is never any public conversation about banning radios and sound systems in cars, ensuring that windows are rolled down year round so that drivers can hear, banning cupholders and taking Teslas off the road because of those giant touchscreen display panels in the middle. Drivers are entitled to their distractions. It is the cyclists (and of course, pedestrians) who are the distracted menace with their teensy little screens.

mobile adWe don't run this ad on TreeHugger anymore.../CC BY 2.0

John is careful not to suggest a ban, knowing that the entire cycling community would go medieval on his head, but continues: (my emphasis)

The point is that the urban cycling environment remains fraught with all the familiar risks. In those conditions, distracted cycling is the equivalent of a self-inflicted injury. So as smart phones become increasingly difficult to sheath, we should be talking openly about this topic instead of ignoring it. After all, the anti-cycling crowd will notice those texting cyclists sooner or later, and then the debate is going to be about bans and punishments instead of safety and education.

The main difference between distracted driving and distracted cycling or walking is the fact that the driver tends to kill other people, whereas the cyclist looking at a phone is likely to injure themselves. Yes, there is a societal cost if that happens, but cyclists also ride with no hands, put bags of groceries on their handlebars, listen to music, and if they are architects like me they are looking at buildings instead of the road. People do all kinds of dumb things that can cause self-inflicted injuries when they are on a bike, walking or just living their lives. But they are not likely to kill many other people.

Do we need to have a public conversation about all the dumb things that people do in their daily lives? It would never end. And I do see John's point, but these "public discussions" invariably go down the same well-trodden route: cyclists (and pedestrians) are idiots and don't belong on the roads which belong to cars, so we will regulate you until you go away.

UPDATE: a relevant tweet.

Do we need a "public conversation" about using phones while cycling?
As Major Strasser noted, “You would find the conversation a trifle one-sided.”

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