Though no one disputes that both bicycling and technology use are on the rise (especially as technology is increasingly used for navigation), the debate over whether or not there should be laws to regulate cell phone and headphone/earplug use while bicycling is a heated one—opinions couldn’t be more divergent.
Distracted bicycling reform: Which side are you on?
Proponents of new regulations are concerned that bicyclists are distracted when they text or talk on handheld cell phones and/or listen to music using headphones or earplugs while riding. They argue that, similar to distracted driving, these bicyclists pose a danger to pedestrians, other bicyclists, drivers, and themselves, and that it’s just common sense that these behaviors are distracting, and therefore dangerous, and should be prevented. As Massachusetts state Rep. Steven Howitt told Star Tribune, “if they want to share the road, they have to share the responsibility as well.” Rep. Howitt’s new bill would prohibit Massachusetts bicyclists from wearing headphones while riding. “A biker could be cutting across an intersection, and an ambulance is coming through and he’s not hearing it if he’s playing music very loud,” Howitt explained.
Those who oppose the stricter laws say there isn’t a body of evidence to support the claim that distracted bicycling is harmful in a way significant enough to warrant new laws and penalties. While there is a shortage of data, studies such as these findings from the Netherlands and these from New York City do exist. But is the risk high enough to take attention away from distracted driving law enforcement, a much more sizable problem?
Distracted bicycling: Current laws
No matter which side of the debate you’re on, momentum for regulation is picking up speed. Some states have already passed laws and others are in the process. At least seven states have banned headphone/earplug use (California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia—specifically include cyclists in their laws restricting or banning the use of headsets or earplugs). Some states, such as Maryland and Delaware, only ban headphones if they are covering both ears. An eighth state, Pennsylvania, prohibits people driving vehicles from using headsets, this may very well include bicycles, which the state has defined as vehicles.
In Rhode Island, bikers and drivers wearing earphones, headsets, or other listening devices are subject to fines that range from $85 for a first offense to $95 for a second and $140 for any subsequent offense.
When it comes to driving a motor vehicle in Minnesota, it’s illegal for drivers to read, compose, or send texts, emails, or to access the Internet while their car is in motion (or even when sitting at a stoplight or a stop sign). It’s also illegal for permit or provisional licensed drivers to use a cell phone when driving, except when calling 911 in an emergency. But when it comes to the issue of distracted driving while operating a bicycle on Minnesota’s roadways, there isn’t currently a law in place – though the Minnesota Safety Council cautions riders to not wear headphones when bicycling.
But this is not a new issue either – it’s just gaining more traction recently. Back in 2010, California State Senator, Joe Simitian, put forth a bill to ban cell phone use by bicyclists.
It was a bill that the California Bicycle Coalition (CBC), was an early supporter of that is, until cyclists were included in the bill. Though CBC Communications Director, Jim Brown, noted that safe riding should be encouraged at all times, he also said at the time that, “The consequences of a distracted driver are considerably more serious than the consequences of distracted cycling.”
Though Simitian’s bill did not pass, it kicked off a new area of focus for distracted driving that has many cities and states now considering banning handheld cell phone use, even though they may remain open to allowing bicyclists to use hands-free devices.