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Why I’m Against a Texting-While-Cycling Law

November 11, 2014
Photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Before you scroll directly to bottom of this post to leave a comment, here are some disclaimers: Speaking on a cellphone or texting while riding a bicycle is not something that I condone. On the busy and sometimes dangerous streets of New York City, you need all your wits and senses about you. When you’re on your bike, I do not recommend listening to music on headphones, staring into an iPhone, chatting with a friend, or taking a selfie. Eyes on the road, #bikenyc!

With that out of the way…

You may have read that New York City Council member Mark Treyger is poised to introduce legislation that would make using a cellphone while riding a bicycle illegal. At first glance, such a proposal sounds like a good idea. After all, given my disclaimers above, who would be against making it illegal to do something as potentially distracting and dangerous as using a cellphone while biking? Plus, Treyger’s bill doesn’t exactly seem like it’s all that punitive.

Tickets for texting or talking on the phone while biking will carry a $50 fine, which could rise to $200 for repeat violations.

But first-time offenders who don’t hurt anyone or cause property damage could avoid the fine by taking a bike safety class, which the city Department of Transportation and NYPD would be required to start offering next year.

Treyger said he proposed the classes to make it clear the ban wasn’t a money-raising gambit.

“We think we should be emphasizing education rather than collecting revenue,” he said.

This seems perfectly reasonable. Other cities, such as Chicago, have made texting-while-biking illegal, and the movement is gaining favor among legislators elsewhere in the country.

But there are lots of reasons to be suspicious of such a bill, Treyger’s motivations for proposing it, and how it might be enforced on the street. While I’m inclined to re-emphasize my disclaimer above — Please, don’t use a cellphone while biking — I’m also very much against Treyger’s bill. Here’s why.

1. It’s legislation by anecdote. 

From the Daily News:

Treyger said he was prompted to introduce the ban when he saw a cyclist on Stillwell Ave. in Brooklyn texting and veering in and out of traffic, nearly causing an accident.

And the Post:

Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) says his bill was prompted by seeing a distracted cyclist nearly cause a multi-car accident near his office in Gravesend.

When considering such an account, one has to consider the source. Treyger’s most recent contribution to the Vision Zero discussion was to call into question the placement of a speed camera as nothing more than a “gotcha” trap against motorists. Since, to the best of my knowledge, Treyger has not previously sponsored any sort of meaningful bike-safety legislation, questioning his motives here as well as his account of this alleged near-accident is reasonable and prudent.

Chicago Alderman Margaret Laurino, who proposed that city’s texting-while-biking law, said that it was “‘common sense’ in leveling the playing field between bicyclists and motorists.” That idea — that cars and bikes must be held to the same standard — is a common thread in legislation such as this, and smells somewhat of a “no fair” reaction to the rise of Vision Zero and the safe streets movement: if drivers have to obey particular laws, then so do cyclists. Indeed, that’s what Tregyer told the Daily News: “If it’s reckless for drivers to do it – which it is – it’s just as irresponsible for cyclists.” But this is the logic of my five-year-old daughter, who thinks it’s unfair that I have different rules for her than I do for her 21-month-old brother. Again, I’m not arguing that texting while cycling is smart or all that safe on the mean streets of New York City, but it most certainly is not “just as irresponsible” as texting while operating a two- or six-ton piece of complex motorized machinery.

It’s fine for some laws and public safety campaigns to be borne out of personal experience or observation — or even pet peeves — but they have to hold up under the weight of data and statistics. Which leads me to…

2. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Texting or using a cellphone while cycling has been a factor in exactly zero fatalities or serious injuries. Treyger has argued that such  statistics aren’t collected because the behavior isn’t currently illegal, but that, of course, is hogwash. The NYPD and their surrogates in the tabloids report on all kinds of circumstances that allegedly contribute to crashes. Other more neutral agencies, such as the Department of Health, track all sorts of information as they relate to injuries and fatalities in NYC. If a texting cyclist had seriously injured or killed a pedestrian or caused a multi-car crash we’d have heard about it by now.

3. We already know what makes cycling safe.

Protected bicycle lanes that are separated from vehicular traffic. Green waves and signal timing that prioritizes the slow and steady movement of people on bicycles over people in automobiles. 20 mph speed limits. Bicycle-friendly cities are already doing a lot of simple things to protect people on bikes from death by car. Banning cellphone use isn’t even among the top 50 things on their lists.

4. It actually doesn’t apply equally to motorists and cyclists.

Treyger’s bill “would ban any use of a cellphone, tablet or computer except when attached to a hands-free device. It’s currently legal to fiddle with a smart phone while riding a bike.” Drivers are free to fiddle with GPS devices, dashboard touch-screens that require them to take their eyes off the road just to change radio stations or adjust the AC, and many other non-cellphone devices. These distractions have likely caused more fatal crashes than texting-while-biking. There’s also plenty of research to show that hands-free devices do little to limit a driver’s cognitive distraction. If Treyger wanted to save lives, he’d propose, or at least discuss, banning the use of a cellphone in any form, handsfree or otherwise, while operating a motor vehicle.

5. It’s a waste of resources.

The courts are already clogged with cyclists who have been cited by the NYPD for behaviors which are not actually illegal. Do we need to send more people to a courtroom — or even a classroom — for something that hasn’t been shown to cause a measurable level of harm?

Then there’s the question of limited manpower in the age of Vision Zero. An officer who spends ten or twenty minutes issuing a citation for a minor traffic offense can not spend that same ten or twenty minutes issuing citations for another, more serious offense. This is why many bike advocates are frustrated when the NYPD tickets cyclists for going through a red at a T intersection. It’s not that anyone condones any and all red-light running, but rather that by stationing officers at low-stakes locations, the NYPD is missing an opportunity to target more serious offenses, even against cyclists. Which leads me to…

6. There are serious concerns about how the NYPD would apply such a law.

Far from “leveling the playing field between bicyclists and motorists,” Treyger’s bill could have the unintended effect of tilting it against people who bike. Given how some precincts prefer fish-in-a-barrel ticketing against cyclists over measures that would actually make New Yorkers safe, there’s no reason to think the same thing wouldn’t happen here. Indeed, this was one of the chief concerns of advocates in Chicago:

The Active Transportation Alliance, a group which promotes biking, walking and mass transit use, supported the ordinance but was concerned that bicyclists, because they are more visible than motorists, would be more often targeted than phone-using motorists.

Additionally, we’ve seen time and time again that low-level criminal infractions are disproportionately used as a pretext for pulling over young African-American and Hispanic males.

…the facts in a recent CUNY Law School study show that from 2008 to 2011, the New York City Police Department issued more tickets in minority neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods to cyclists who rode their bikes on the sidewalk. Of the 15 neighborhoods with the greatest number of summonses for the crime of bicycling on the sidewalk, 12 consist mainly of blacks and Latinos.

That NYPD might abuse such a law is not reason alone to oppose it, but it is important to understand the context and stewardship into which such a law might be enacted.

Treyger’s bill may or may not pass. I can certainly see many in the advocacy community deciding to get behind it — or at least not actively opposing it — on the grounds that arguing against it is too nuanced a discussion for New York City right now. With cyclists Public Enemy Number One and even the DOT’s current strategy of protecting cyclists leaving many scratching their heads, coming out against what seems on its surface like a common-sense law might feel like a waste of political capital.

There is reason for optimism, however. New York City has certainly seen its share of go-nowhere, anti-bike legislation proposed by city council members who never before took an interest in cycling safety. Yet one of those city council members has since gone on to be a stalwart supporter of Vision Zero, lower speed limits, and safe streets. If David Greenfield can evolve into a Vision Zero hero, then there’s hope for Mark Treyger yet.

  1. November 12, 2014 12:50 pm

    For all the ink spilled on “the bicycle lobby,” these people really do not know how to work the sausage-making in government. You want this bill? OK … bundle it with legislation allowing the Idaho stop. (although I am also really concerned about NYPD enforcement of this).

    • November 12, 2014 3:30 pm

      I don’t think anyone wants this bill, nor do I think many in the “bicycle lobby” were aware that Treyger was going to introduce it before they read about it in the press.

  2. Mike permalink
    November 13, 2014 11:10 am

    how many new bike lanes in Treyger’s District? 0. How many cross Brooklyn lanes in Treygers District? 0. That would make things safer for cyclists and drivers as well. HOw many cross Brooklyn Bike lanes from Prospect Park through Borough Park to Bensonhurst? 0. Oh, yes, That’s Vision 0.

  3. November 15, 2014 6:01 am

    There are laws that apply to motorists that needn’t apply to cyclists, but I don’t think this is one of them. You raise some valid concerns (aside from racial profiling – really? Either you’re using a phone or you aren’t), but setting aside the issues of administering the proposed law, I’d say it is pretty sound. I don’t think people have to die in order for a law to be necessary. Some traffic laws are for the sake of efficiency anyway. People wandering around on the sidewalk like idiots while looking at their phones is even less dangerous than cyclists doing it on the roads, but I would definitely support legislation against that! Staring into your phone while cycling in traffic isn’t something you need to have a right to do, and if you refrain from doing it, you won’t have to be responsible for misusing police resources.

    • November 15, 2014 4:05 pm

      Racial profiling is a very real concern. Please follow the link to see how the NYPD enforces the law against sidewalk riding, another “you’re either doing it or you’re not” offense.

      Like I said, that NYPD might abuse a law is not reason alone to oppose it, but it should be taken into consideration. I doubt someone like Treyger, whose constituents are largely white and not generally bike riders either way, would even think of this as a concern.

      • November 16, 2014 6:56 am

        I think I’m at fault for being fairly unclear in my previous comment. I’m not saying that racial profiling in general isn’t an issue (though it does sound like it) – it most definitely is, and I’m not at all for it. I’m also quite aware that some laws can be used for less than noble purposes.

        I would assume that the issue is whether enforcing the act that the law is guarding against is worth the potential risk of that law being abused. Riding on the sidewalk is pretty easy to use as a “stop and frisk” excuse, as would using a mobile phone while riding. With that considered, I still think that using a phone while riding is something that shouldn’t be ok. What I meant by “you’re either doing it or you aren’t” is that if you don’t want to be harrased by the fuzz then don’t do something illegal. Spotting someone doing something illegal is a good (and clear) reason for police to stop someone. Getting stopped and searched for simply “looking suspicious”, which in some cases is unfortunately looking “not-white”, is not.

  4. November 21, 2014 6:36 pm

    You need only ride through any city in The Netherlands to understand that cell phone use, talking, texting, or playing angry birds, while riding a bicycle is not unsafe. Huge numbers of bicycle riders there do it and look at their safety records compared to ours.

    Someone riding a bicycle is much more connected to the world around them and has a greater cognition of things. Using a cell phone only very minimally reduces this. This is vastly different from being in a sound and vision isolated car where distractions such as cell phones have a much greater difference.

    Oh, being hit by a 4000 steel car will hurt more than being hit by a 150 lb soft fleshy bicycle rider.

    That said, I agree that people shouldn’t do it. Not so much because it’s dangerous but simply because it’s mildly irritating when they’re in your way.


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