Legislature Considers the Issue of Distracted Cycling

Do cyclists wearing headphones pose a danger equivalent to drivers using a handheld cellphone to talk or text? That is a question the Oregon legislature is poised to address during the current session.

Rep. Michael Schaufler (D-Happy Valley) has introduced a bill (HB 2602) that, according to the advocacy organization BikePortland “would create a new traffic violation for ‘unsafe operation of a bicycle’”. The offense would target anyone riding “a bicycle on a highway while wearing a listening device that is capable of receiving telephonic communication, radio broadcasts or recorded sounds.” Violations could lead to a fine of up to $90 – the same amount as violations of the Oregon distracted driving law. To judge from the coverage at BikePortland the reaction among local cyclists has been far from positive. A selection of comments posted on the blog of BikePortland publisher/editor Jonathan Maus is pretty much uniformly negative.

An interesting aspect of this legislation which has not been addressed in the media coverage, however, is the degree to which this attempt to cut down on Oregon bicycle accidents differs in fundamental philosophical ways from the existing, year-old, Oregon distracted driving ban.

Distracted driving laws focus first and foremost on the hands: the idea that operation of a handheld cellphone, be it to make calls or to text, creates an inordinately dangerous distraction for people operating a motor vehicle. That is why such laws here in Oregon and elsewhere, focus on getting drivers to use hands-free headsets (and to cut out texting entirely). In theory a cyclist using a hands-free phone headset should be no more distracted than a driver. The proposed distracted cycling law, however, is concerned primarily with the ears, rather than the hands. The problem Rep. Schaufler sees arises not from taking one’s eyes off the road while dialing but from losing the awareness of the broader environment when external noise is blotted out by a rider’s earphones.

As BikePortland notes, it is currently unclear whether the existing Oregon distracted driving law applies to cyclists (though, for the record, texting while riding a bike is one of the very few things that is even stupider and more dangerous than texting while driving a car). However, as any Portland bike accident lawyer can attest, safe riding is every cyclist’s responsibility. Even here in Portland, one of America’s most bike-friendly cities, riders need to be paying attention to the road because, as any cyclist will tell you, riders can’t count on drivers to do that job for them.

KGW.com: Lawmakers target cyclists with headphones

BikePortland.org: Another look at HB 2602, which would prohibit biking with headphones on

CNET: Wear your earbuds on the street? Get Fined.