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Bicycle Safety

Advocates Concerned That Cyclists Are Included in Distracted Driving Bill

A bill introduced last month by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who has been a steady advocate for reducing the dangers of distracted driving, would increase first-time and repeat fines for drivers who text while driving or who don’t use hands-free devices, and would extend the prohibition of cell phone use to cyclists. This last move has cycling advocates baffled and on the defensive.

State Senate Bill 1475 would amend the California Vehicle Code so that, “a person shall not ride a bicycle or drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while riding or driving.” The bill would increase the base fine for illegal use of a cell phone while driving or riding a bicycle from $20 to $50 for the first offense, and increase the fine from $50 to $100 for each subsequent offense.

"This was something that was an oversight from the initial enactment from 2006, which took effect in 2008," Simitian explained in an interview with Streetsblog. He said he waited a year after the law took effect to make changes, which include the increased fines, adding a point to a driver's record for the infraction, and using a portion of the fine to create an education fund for the dangers of distracted driving. Simitian also said the motivation for adding cyclists to the bill did not come from a dramatic incident nor a trend of increased cycling collisions due to cell phone use.

"Common sense tells us it’s not a safe habit, given all the risks that cyclists have to contend with," said Simitian.

The California Bicycle Coalition (CBC), which was an early supporter of the original distracted driving legislation, was not thrilled about the inclusion of cyclists in the bill. CBC Communications Director Jim Brown said that he was confused about the motivation for extending the same level of fines to cyclists, particularly absent data showing distracted cycling as a public safety hazard.

"The consequences of a distracted driver are considerably more serious than the consequences of distracted cycling," said Brown, adding that safe riding should be encouraged at all times and that talking on a cell phone or any other practice that distracted a cyclist from riding would not be advisable.

As for the actual danger to the public of distracted cycling, Brown said the data didn’t support the presumption of risk the law seeks to redress. "There are theoretical risks and there are actual risks," he said. "As far as I’m aware, there is no accident evidence that points to a problem. In the absence of any evidence against bicyclists, this law seems premature."

Neither spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol nor the San Francisco Police Department could point to a trend that showed an increase in distracted cycling. SFPD Lt. Lyn Tomioka said she had never heard of an officer ticketing a cyclist for riding and talking on a cell phone, nor did she say it was a concern in the department.

Tom Rice, Research Epidemiologist at UC Berkeley's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, said the issue could be one of data and the definition of a collision. "Unless there is also a motorized vehicle involved, it won't make it into traffic collision reports," he said. The traditional databases, such as the CHP's Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS), don't capture bicycle-pedestrian injury collisions or fatalities. "The data are hard to come by. It's not a nice, easy reliable data set," said Rice.

bike_and_phone.jpgPhoto: Bryan Goebel

According to Wendy Alfsen of California Walks, a pedestrian advocacy organization, all road users should be "aware of our circumstances, particularly when there's a potential conflict of interest between myself -- whether I'm a driver, a cyclist, or a pedestrian -- and another roadway user."

Alfsen said she wasn’t aware of statewide statistics showing an increasing trend of cyclists injuring or killing pedestrians, but she said in Berkeley over the past 15 years, with an average of three to four pedestrian fatalities annually, only one was caused by a cyclist.

"I don't really think pedestrians or bicyclists or drivers can hold another roadway user to a higher standard," she said, though she argued, "the consequences to drivers should be higher because they can cause a much greater degree of harm to others and to themselves."

Given the difference in the potential danger posed by drivers and cyclists, regional bicycle advocates were concerned that the bill would equate the danger of each.

"It's obvious to even the most casual observer that the potential damaging effects of driving a car while distracted far outweigh those of bicycling while distracted," said Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Corinne Winter. "It's my own feeling that enforcement needs to focus on unlawful behavior that is potentially lethal or damaging."

Andy Thornley, Program Director for The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, agreed with Winter that lumping cyclists with motorists in this law was not good policy. While the SFBC "teaches and preaches safe, respectful, and mindful bicycling," said Thornley, "we're very leery of any equivalence of penalty when punishing a guilty cyclist or driver for the same offense."

"Even worse, we wonder whether bicyclists would be cited more often than motorists because it's so much easier to spot someone texting while pedaling," he added. "It's already a problem of perception that individual bicycle riders seem to be noticed being naughty more than motorists, comfortably anonymous within their glass and steel boxes."

Because the bill was introduced on February 19th, it won’t go before committee until April at the earliest, at which time there will likely be significant interest and debate among advocates for safe roadway conditions.

As for supporting the bill, Walk California’s Alfsen said, "As a safety organization, we should be in favor of cell phone prohibitions applying to all roadway users, although the penalty should probably differ because of the degree of harm that drivers can inflict."

The CBC’s Brown said that his organization wasn’t taking a position on the bill at present but that they would work with Simitian as the legislation moved forward so that the penalties would be commensurate with the public safety risks associated with driving and cycling.

The SFBC’s Thornley worried the law could have unintended consequences, such as a reduction in cycling.

"We're concerned that this law might find an inordinate proportion of bicycle riders to target, missing the real danger on the streets and further alienating the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transportation in California," he said.

Simitian defended his record of support for cyclists, citing his work as mayor of Palo Alto to build that city's bicycle boulevard and numerous initiatives that improved cycling conditions.

He also said he would be open to reviewing the fine structure in committee if that was a significant issue.

"I’ve been an advocate for cyclists for 25 years for full rights to the road, but with those rights come a certain degree of responsibility," he said.

UPDATE: The SFBC's Andy Thornley wanted to be sure readers know they don't oppose Senator Simitian's bill: "We're definitely in favor of cell
phone and distracted driver/rider prohibitions that create safe
streets for all users, no special forgiveness for folks on bikes. The concerns I expressed to Streetsblog
about the proposal are not whether bicycle riders should follow the same
rules as everyone else (they should), it's whether a distracted SUV
driver and a distracted bike rider should be fined the same amount,
given the enormous disparity in their destructive potential."

Bryan Goebel contributed reporting to this story.

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