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Bike advocates express knee-jerk 'concerns' about cellphone ban

The San Francisco Chronicle: Bike advocates express knee-jerk 'concerns' about cellphone ban

When I see a cyclist chatting on a cell phone, or better yet, texting while riding hands-free, one word springs to mind: Suicide.

But it's not hard to spot cyclists barreling down Valencia Street, phone in hand. And it's certainly not hard to spot automobile drivers using their phones, either, despite a state law banning the practice.

Palo Alto Senator Joe Simitian, who wrote that law, wants to double its fines and make it apply to cyclists.

So why are cycling advocacy groups, including the S.F. Bicycle Coalition, opposing the measure, as reported by Streetsblog? Two reasons: First, they cite a lack of evidence that talking or texting while pedaling is dangerous. Second, they fear that, because cyclists are more visible — and easier to catch — police may enforce the law disproportionately against them.

Insert the sound of me rolling my eyes. Loudly.

This stance plays directly to drivers' biases that cyclists think they're above the law. Everyone who shares the road must pay attention, and you can't do that with a phone in your hand. Period.

The second point might be somewhat reasonable, particularly in parts of the state where the police thinking cycling itself is a crime. But why not write some precautions into the language, or include police education — or simply file suit if post-implementation statistics point to unequal enforcement?

Some more moderate pedestrian and cycling advocacy groups have suggested a lesser fine for chatty cyclists, which also sounds perfectly reasonable, given that what cyclists risk is their own hide, or a potentially bruised pedestrian, whereas drivers risk somebody else's life.

But to say that cyclists don't need to follow common-sense safety rules is just absurd. Perhaps bike advocates would also like evidence that the sky is blue? Allowing cyclists to merrily chat as drivers get ticketed for it would just reinforce drivers' fury at cyclists, however unfounded it may be — which wouldn't be good for cyclists.

On that note, I spoke earlier this week with Jim Brown of the California Bike Coalition, which hasn't taken an official stance on Simitian's bill. He told me about research that found that when automobile drivers were asked to watch a video and identify traffic violations, they disproportionately saw the cyclists' faux pas. When cyclists watched the same video, they, in turn, disproportionately saw the drivers' peccadillos. In other words, there's an epidemic of pot-calling-the-kettle-blackism on the road.

As Wendy Alfen of California Walks told Streestblog, "I don't really think pedestrians or bicyclists or drivers can hold another roadway user to a higher standard."

Now that's something we should all be able to agree on.

UPDATE: Andy Thornley of the SFBC, who was quoted in the Streetsblog post, offered this clarification of the group's stance on Simitian's bill:

The SF Bicycle Coalition does ~not~ oppose Senator Simitian's bill, we've only just heard about it, but 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 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. The concerns I expressed on 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.