Using a phone while cycling

Using a phone while cycling

Alright, here we go. This is one of those hot-button topics, like helmet laws. I’d bet, however, that there are even fewer people who feel neutral about this one. People are generally very much against it, or very much for it.

I’m going to leave the law out of it. That’s for another topic. In some places it’s perfectly fine (Netherlands, of course), and in others it’s not (here in Australia). Whatever the law, that’s the law, and I’m not going to get into whether or not to disobey it. As I always say, unless you are in a place where a law is truly discriminatory, you need to obey it, or be happy to suffer the consequences if you get busted.

I want to talk about whether it should or shouldn’t be illegal to do so in the first place.

The reasons for usually only have to do with, quite simply, one’s right to use a mobile phone, and that it’s fine to do so while cycling because it’s really not dangerous. There really isn’t much more in support of it than that.

The reason’s against? There are a few more of those, but they all have to do with safety.

Generally speaking, they are to do with a cyclists awareness of their surroundings when having a conversation on a phone or texting, and the fact that one usually needs to be holding the phone to use it, which clearly only leaves one hand for controlling the bike.


When you are talking to someone, a certain amount of attention needs to be devoted to the conversation in order for it to be profitable. Multi-tasking of any kind will cause a division of attention between the tasks, and the concern here is that operating a vehicle in traffic is potentially quite dangerous, and therefore it should have your full attention at all times, which I completely agree with.

There are a few interesting points to raise. The first is that people who ride with others are always talking to each other as they ride, and that seems quite a natural thing to do. It doesn’t appear to have enough of a drain on your mental resources so as to impair your ability to operate a vehicle in traffic. I would agree with that, too.

Thinking about my own experiences, a funny thing happens, however, when that conversation happens through a phone. For some reason, it takes more concentration to be engaged enough with the other person to the extent that you can really be present in the conversation. I can think of many instances where someone was trying to talk to me while I am on the phone with someone who is also trying to talk to me, and I simply end up not hearing what either of them are saying, but I can do any number of things, even moderately complex mechanical work, while listening to someone speak to me in person. On a phone? It’s distracting.

The research, however, gives a different story. This article is a bit old now, but the Americal Psychological Association reported that “Listening to the radio or books on tape did not impair driving performance, suggesting that listening per se is not enough to interfere. However, being involved in a conversation takes attention away from the ability to process information about the driving environment well enough to safely operate a motor vehicle…. the complexity of the conversation was what compromised concentration, whether the driver talked by phone or to a passenger.”

That confuses me. Listening isn’t a factor, but complex conversations are. The more complex, the more significant. Doesn’t that involve listening?  If you are actually listening, then you are processing information. I can’t say that I have found this to be the case, personally, whether in a car or on a bike, yet “according to the research, the mental activity of conversation, whether in person or over the phone, is what takes one’s mind off the road.” Regardless, there have been many other studies using eye-tracking devices that demonstrate decreased concentration levels when using a phone while driving. More studies can be linked to here. Alright.

If we go with this, then even if you have both hands on the steering wheel or handlebars, then your concentration is impaired if you are in a conversation on a phone. Texting is far worse.

Aside from decreased awareness of visual stimuli, there is a decrease in the auditory stimuli that you can take in, which I would think is the more significant factor while cycling, because you use your hearing to a much larger degree than you would while driving.

Ability to control the vehicle

If you are holding a phone, as the vast majority of people still do, then you have one hand left to control the vehicle. The problem here should be rather obvious.

Braking efficiency is going to be reduced either by a little (no rear brake) or a lot (no front brake), causing longer stopping distances. If you need to stop suddenly and apply too much rear brake, you will loose the back-end, whereas if you grab too much front brake, you could either lock it up and loose the front end, or you might get the ever-popular endo. At the same time, when braking, the weight of the bike and rider shifts to the front, and there is a tendency for the cyclist to swerve to some degree when braking with one hand, as your forward motion is absorbed into that side of the handlebar, which will in turn cause you to change direction. This could clearly be dangerous.

More generally, riding with one hand decreases your ability to control the bike, but especially in situations where you have to employ avoidance tactics, be it a pothole or an accident with another road user.

Put decreased concentration and decreased ability to control your vehicle together, and you get significantly higher odds of having or causing an accident.

It seems pretty cut and dry why there would be laws governing things that cause distraction on the roads, but there are some pretty vocal opponents to this when it comes to cycling.

The opposition

This is one of those situations where there isn’t a significant, statistically verifiable danger associated with it, which is generally where the opposition comes from. This report from Denmark finds that while using a phone while cycling does increase the risk of getting into an accident collision: “We expect mobile telephoning to interfere with cycling behaviour and to worsen performance”, that is nevertheless of little concern, because, “we expect the effect on the number of bicycle accidents resulting in severe injury or death to be small compared to driving a car.” It concludes with, ” Enforcement of a ban on the use of a mobile phone while cycling would be difficult and expensive. Given the effectiveness of legislation and the estimation of the number of severe accidents caused by the use of mobile phones while driving we advise: Not to ban (handheld) mobile telephoning while cycling…”

This is getting slightly off topic, but I’m unable to figure out how enforcing a ban on mobile phone use would be any different for cyclists as it is for drivers. Expensive? Maybe I missed something, but does it cost more to issue a ticket to a cyclist than to a driver?

Ok, so we shouldn’t ban mobile phone use for cyclists because it’s really not that big of a deal. Much of this debate is currently centered around New York, where council member Mark Treyger is on a mission to introduce legislation to ban texting while cycling. He says he saw someone doing this and their trajectory wasn’t exactly straight ahead, and he was amazed that there was no law against this. This is clearly a big concern, because, as he told StreetsblogNYC ‘“that could’ve caused a multi-car crash, multiple fatalities,” Treyger said. “That’s why it’s dangerous.”’ When asked for data to back up his concern, he dazzled us with this beauty: ‘“It is hard to pinpoint exact data,” he said. “Quite frankly, after what I saw, I don’t need to see data to know that was wrong and that was dangerous.” Furthermore, ‘“Today we’re shedding light on this issue,” he said. “We’re shedding light on the fact that people have been spotted texting while biking.”

*Slow clap*

This really is groundbreaking stuff. Maybe I’ll hold a press conference too, because I once saw someone eating a sandwich while driving.

It’s understandable why people are getting their backs up against this legislation, because there is no actual evidence to show that it’s a problem in the first place, cyclists are being vilified, and laws are being introduced merely based on anecdote. Supporters of the legal right to use a mobile phone while cycling point out that a bicycle is traveling at a far lower speed than cars, that cyclists have more time to take in information and react because of this, and that because we are not 2 tonnes of metal and glass, we are likely just gong to bump into someone or knock them over rather than splash them all over our windscreen.

Does any of that mean that it shouldn’t be a concern and legislated against? Given the volume of data that demonstrates that using a mobile phone while driving or cycling greatly increases the chance of a collision, it would seem irresponsible to just let that one go. You could argue that it is up to the user to determine how safe they wish to be, like helmet laws, but the problem is that the effects of texting or even speaking on the phone can have potentially dangerous effects on other road users. It’s like elderly people who really shouldn’t be driving anymore – they rarely get into accidents, but how many do they cause? Interestingly, that brings up a good point about lowering urban speed limits – even though the elderly who don’t have the required situational awareness any more but still drive are a potential danger to others, they rarely are, because of their low speeds.

So while there doesn’t seem to be much evidence in support of the idea that cycling and texting is causing accidents collisions, or even deaths, like there is for people who drive cars, what does seem to be the case is that it clearly has the potential to – which is why it is a pretty tricky situation. As more and more people start using a bicycle to get around, more needs to be done to change the physical and legal landscape to accommodate and encourage it. Safely. We’ve all seen how the rise of the smartphone has turned pedestrians into zombies, so why not put measures into place to do what we can to keep the zombies from mobilizing and integrating into road traffic?

Personally, I’m in support of a ban on mobile phone use while cycling. I admit that I have done it, and have now and then taken a few pictures with my phone while riding (not in traffic, mind you), but I still maintain that it introduces unnecessary risks, and is potentially quite dangerous. Like the Dutch report mentions, just pull over and take the call, if you must, which is even easier to do on a bike than in a car. If you are riding on a shared path or in traffic, your attention should be directed solely at the task at hand, for your own good, and for those around you. Why chance it?


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