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.

  • I think its political suicide for bicycle advocacy organizations to come out against this bill. I can hear the motorists already saying, “Those whiny bicyclists want equal access to the road but don’t want to follow the rules of the road… AGAIN!”

    However there is at least one preliminary study that has looked into this. Read below:

    Via the New Jersey Bike/Ped News Digest –

    Report: Mobile phone use while cycling: Incidence and effects on behaviour and safety
    (may require special institutional access privileges)
    Ergonomics • Vol. 53, Issue 1 – January 2010, p 30 – 42

    The effects of mobile phone use on cycling behaviour were studied. In study 1, the prevalence of mobile phone use while cycling was assessed. In Groningen 2.2% of cyclists were observed talking on their phone and 0.6% were text messaging or entering a phone number. In study 2, accident-involved cyclists responded to a questionnaire. Only 0.5% stated that they were using their phone at the time of the accident. In study 3, participants used a phone while cycling. The content of the conversation was manipulated and participants also had to enter a text message. Data were compared with just cycling and cycling while listening to music. Telephoning coincided with reduced speed, reduced peripheral vision performance and increased risk and mental effort ratings. Text messaging had the largest negative impact on cycling performance. Higher mental workload and lower speed may account for the relatively low number of people calling involved in accidents.


    Please note that the style and speed of cycling in Denmark is much different then in the US or San Fransisco. Plus with the large amount of separated infrastructure, there may not be as many chances for cyclists to crash into automobiles and sustaining serious injury.

  • Let me rephrase part of what I just said.

    I STILL think its political suicide for bicycle advocacy organizations to come out against this bill. They should support it wholeheartedly and then make sure they are at the table to ensure that there is language in the bill that is favorable to cyclists and other vulnerable users.

    I also don’t know why something that has been shown to be as dangerous as DWI is only a $50 fine.

  • As a cyclist myself, I can’t think of a reason I would be opposed to the legislation right now, other than the potential for a disproportionate amount of enforcement on bicyclists because it is more visible. I certainly could be convinced otherwise though.

  • JohnB

    Eric/Andy et al,

    It seems a clear majority exists here in favor of supporting the inclusion of all road users in the Bill. Most reasonable folks would need to see a compelling reason to include just one very specific type of road user.

    The Danish study is interesting but I’m not sure I need a study to tell me that riding a bike on Market street while texting is distracting and dangerous. Much like I don’t need to stick a knife in my hand to know it will hurt.

    Having said that, I’m not convinced that all road laws should apply to cyclists. After all, cyclists are not currently required to take a test, to be licensed, to insure their “vehicle” or to register it.

    So there is a precendent for excluding cyclists from legislation that covers other road users.

    But to me the DUI/DWI equivalency argument trumps all others. I’ve never had a cell phone call or text that wouldn’t wait.

  • Nick

    Does anyone remember the police stings along the Wiggle last year? Arbitrary, random, and vindictive- just like this law would be.

    But go ahead and support it if you like. Just know the people enforcing it don’t really like you to begin with.

  • Cindy

    As a cyclist myself, I can attest to the dangers posed by idiots on bicycles who don’t pay attention and who don’t obey the law.

    Seriously, isn’t it bad enough that we have to avoid getting killed by motorists, that we shouldn’t have to worry about getting rear-ended by some jack*** rider running a light (it’s happened to me) or to avoid hitting the clown using a mobile and swerving all over like a skater?

    Cripes, the bike lane isn’t big enough to accommodate stupid.

  • patrick

    @Nick, I understand your concern against selective enforcement, but rider has to be using the phone before it can be enforced. They have to choose to do something that is hazardous to themselves and others before a cop can ticket them.

    It’s a safety issue, but it’s also a perception issue. We cyclists oppose laws that we know to be ineffective and no benefit to safety (such as requiring cyclists to come to a full stop at a stop sign, or bicycle licensing requirements). To have any credibility there, we should support laws that do have clear safety benefits.

  • “I’m not sure I need a study to tell me that riding a bike on Market street while texting is distracting and dangerous”

    That, of course, depends on the conditions. Like most users of handlebar mounted GPS devices, I’m perfectly comfortable using mobile device while riding. That is because I’m capable of making common-sense decisions for myself.

    We are at the beginning of major revolution in mobile communication technology for cyclists. Real-time transit data, online bike maps, and the innovative “CycleTracks” iPhone application used by MTA for sophisticated bike surveys. Sure, the user’s of this technology have to act responsibility — but Simitan’s attempt to outlaw this technology can only be seen as anti-bike.

  • icarus12

    But if this bill passes, where will I find my local stories to tell at dinner? To wit: the cyclist dad talkinf on mobile phone crooked to ear while smoking cig in hand with other hand on handlebars, and toddler in child seat behind. Priceless on Polk St.

  • Alexei

    I support this too, and I say that as someone who fell off my bike while talking on the phone. It’s also fine that drunk biking is illegal.

    That said:

    I’ve been surprised to find in recent years that drunk driving is common in some places (any place where you have to drive to get anywhere, really), and driving after ‘a couple of drinks, but I’m not drunk’ is a way of life, to the point that nobody even comments on it. This seems nuts to me. So I ask: would you rather have a guy heading home, past your house, from a bar, on a bike or in his car? The answer’s obvious to me, and the penalties should reflect that. To have the same penalties for drunk riding as for drunk driving, and for distracted riding as for distracted driving, is nuts.

  • Olympic Athens 2004 Road Race saw Leontin Van Moorsel(NED. “2000 GOLD”) crash with both hands on handlebars and at Tour de France Brad McGee also, countless others not SEEN on TV but professionals nevertheless experience the same misfortune!
    Joe public is more capable and can “ride no hands”! don’t think so! Perhaps lucky to avoid misfortune most times but generally will wobble into a panic seizure of their handlebars.
    Even with 5ft cycle lanes most cyclists on hand phone will cause grief to all road users, even themselves if texting. Art grabbing the phone or knocking it away can cause as much danger although it is the obvious solution when that dumbass is endangering you.
    Visiting you will see many examples of the need for more safety for cyclists but we need to help ourselves by obeying the Laws of the Community! Mass Monthly rides are not the answer as is anti social behaviour on many occasions. Cycle Clubs police their membership but it is difficult to deal with strangers and so the Police Authorities need the tools to be effective.
    Pedestrians texting in a crowd are plain thoughtless and bring to mind a Tax Dodger in Sydney some years ago. Dr. Edelstein would appear on the Court steps with a mobile in either hand for media interaction, clear case of notoriously antisocial behaviour.
    Mark bragging about riding Nohanded is what the driving community expects of cyclists & Andy Chow’s desire to ride DUI sets off another section of the “PYGMY COMMUNITY” who rail against all cyclists because of the actions of the few.
    Any commuter who hates cycling should see what a monthly drive to work with lycra clad cyclists carrying their bike on the roof rack does to their journey that day, should be a change of their attitude within a short period !

  • JohnB


    I don’t think anyone is saying that the penalties for driving while using a cell phone should be the same as DUI. But rather that studies have shown that the degree of distraction is similar.

    Also note that it is generally OK to have about 2 drinks and drive, because that puts you at or below the 0.8 limit. That limit being the generally acceptable point at which judgment begins to become impaired.

    Given that riding a bike requires more focus and attention than driving a car, it is entirely possible that the safe alcohol limit on bikes might be lower. Ditto for using a cell phone, which is easier to use in a car than on a bike.

    So I’m not convinced that fines for cyclists should be lower than fines for cars, but I do think fines for cell phone use should be less than fines for driving/riding drunk. The Courts appear to agree.

  • Let me say something out loud here before the comments run much further: The SF Bicycle Coalition hasn’t come out to oppose Senator Simitian’s bill, we’ve only just heard about it, and the concerns I expressed about the degree of penalty relative to the associated harm (bike perp / car perp) and the “out in the open” factor we already live with in bicycle scofflaw perceptions are concerns that we will voice to the senator. As the story notes, the SFBC teaches and preaches safe, respectful, and mindful bicycling, and we’re fully in agreement with the motives of this law, and its predecessor already in effect. We’re in favor of cell phone and “distracted driver/rider” prohibitions that create safe streets for all users, no special forgiveness for folks on bikes. We do wonder whether a texting SUV driver and a texting bicycle rider should both receive the same monetary penalty, and whether the state’s various police officers will cite the tinted-glass-enclosed driver as often as the out-in-the-open cyclist; from what we’re seeing now, there’s not a lot of enforcement attention paid to the already-well-proven damage caused by distracted driving, and invisible driver-distracting gizmos within autos will only make that worse.

    And no, I don’t believe that this law would lead to a reduction in cycling, I really don’t . . .

  • Alexei

    “Given that riding a bike requires more focus and attention than driving a car…”

    I gotta say, this is absolutely nuts. Yes, a drunk cyclist is more likely to fall over and injure himself that a drunk driver. But a drunk driver–or a sober driver, for that matter–is far more likely to kill and maim. I’m not saying people shouldn’t drive, necessarily, but piloting a multi-ton vehicle at high speeds is a responsibility that is taken far too lightly by many.

    Put another way, riding a bike may require more attention than driving a car, which can be done with your eyes closed (see: people falling asleep at the wheel), or dead drunk, but this is exactly why we need stiff penalties for distracted driving which are unnecessary for bikers. That and the massive damage you can cause to bystanders.

    As far as legal limits go, I found that people would not hesitate to take the wheel after three drinks, or four, because they were confident, knowing where the cops liked to pull people over, believing in the superiority of their skills and their ability to remain unaffected. I was skeptical, considering alcohol’s known effect of increasing self-regard. Then, too, they liked to drive fast down isolated roads on their way home after a night out, which I don’t think they would have done if their judgment was totally unaffected, and which was not particularly safe, drunk or no. But it was the culture of the place– there was, after all, no choice in the matter: if you want to have a drink or two with your buddies, you had to drive to get there and drive home, and so they did, and justified it. Anyway, I’m happy not to have to deal with it anymore.

  • Peter Smith

    Yes, a drunk cyclist is more likely to fall over and injure himself that a drunk driver.

    Disagree. There is loads of evidence that shows how dangerous drunk driving is — not just to innocents, but to the drunk drivers themselves.

  • =v= As the last 16 years (16 years!) of research has shown, hands-free operation of these devices is as distracting and no safer than hand-held operation. In fact the “be safe, use a hands-free kit” doublethink was marketing from cellphone companies that immediately saturated the media right after the landmark 1994 study in the New England Journal of Medicine which demonstrated that hands-free kits don’t help.

    16 years later and we’re still codifying this lie as law. What’s more, the lie makes the law unenforceable, because in the face of cellphone log evidence the motorist can always claim that he or she was using a hands-free kit. A better approach would be to ban all use of these gadgets while driving, and that would actually be enforceable when a cop sees distracted driving in progress.

  • david

    In Amsterdam last year I saw a police phone trap for cyclists with cyclists calling each other to warn of the crackdown. When I get a call, I find it easier to pull over when cycling than driving.

  • Jurij

    We need TOUGH laws against cell ph usage, all classes of users.
    2 years after getting knocked off my bike by a clueless cell user, my dislocated shoulder still is way less than 60% of what it was before.
    Talk to another friend who had her ribs broken in another incident with a cell phone using cyclist.
    Law Enforcement needs to step away from the donut shops , Judiciary need to come in from the golf course and finally pay significant attention to the threat to life from cell using motor vehicle operators and the injuries caused to others by cell user cyclists.
    Lock em up!

  • bent_rider

    I don’t even have a damn cell phone. The last place I want to be talking to someone is while enjoying my bicycle. I support the bill, but the fine for motorists should be $500 and the confiscation of the cell phone. For cyclists, just the confiscation of the cell phone, no fine.

  • Erica

    Hmm…, okay I’m from the east coast but I have never ever seen a bicyclist on a cell phone. As a regular bicyclist (for transport and exercise) it sounds really uncomfortable and unpleasant to me. Then again, my handlebars are pretty low.

    Also, where can you store your cell phone on your bicycle so that it doesn’t fall out of your pocket while riding but yet you can answer it without stopping? The pic above of the guy on the cell phone makes me think he’s going to put it back in his jean’s pocket and it’s going to fall out. What a waste of a good iphone.

  • As a follow-up to this, the NYT reported that the law was passed with reduced fines for cyclists:

    “Cyclists would now be required to abide by the hand-held cellphone and text messaging ban, but they would face smaller fines: $20 for a first offense, $50 for a second – with no additional fines or penalties tacked on.”

  • andrew

    “We are traffic!” “But give us special treatment!” Can’t have it both ways.

  • cyclotronic

    “people in cars should be required to drive with all the windows down at all times, so they can hear what is going on around them. let’s make it a law.”

    at least that’s what it sounds like to me.



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