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"Bicycle Times", January 1, 2013


By Carolyn Szczepanski

Illustrations by David Poe


Just a few short years ago, when I gave up my car and started riding for transportation, I was living in Kansas City. It’s certainly not San Francisco, but KC has its share of ups and downs — and to get from my house to the newspaper where I worked, I had to traverse a number of them.

I was fit but still getting my cycling legs under me and, to climb what seemed like the endless hill on Troost Avenue at the end of the day, I was convinced I needed M.I.A. blaring through my headphones to push me.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that my headphones — and my inability to hear what was going on around me — were putting me in some precarious positions. Just a few weeks into my renewed commitment to ride, my music drowned out the revving motor of a driver gunning through a red light at Linwood Avenue. I came within a few feet of being flattened, even though I was following the law.

From that day on, I decided to leave the headphones at home.

As the number of bicyclists grows nationwide, distracted riding seems to be on the rise. Whether listening to music or talking on the phone, multi-tasking while biking in traffic is asking for trouble.

“Distracted cycling is as dangerous as distracted driving,” says Rich Conroy, a bicycle educator in New York City. “Cyclists increase their own risks and risks to others by not having full control over their bike and not being fully aware of what’s going on around them.”

Because we’re not encased in a metal box, it’s even more important for cyclists to be aware of their surroundings. If you’ve read this column in the past, you know the importance of being predictable — riding in a straight line, signaling when you’re turning or merging into another lane. But that’s just the first step.

“You cannot depend on other people to be looking out for you when riding in a busy urban environment,” says Dylan Johnstone, a bicycle educator in Boston, Massachusetts. ”You must be ready to react quickly and maneuver around hazards as they arise. So it’s dangerous to take your eyes off the road for even a second.”

While it might seem harmless to take a call while riding, consider how long you’re looking away as you pull out your device, identify the caller, hit the right button, and make sure it connected. Then consider how quickly a pedestrian can step into your path — or a motorist can veer into your lane. “If my phone rings while I’m cycling and I need to take the call, I pull off to the side, take a break, and handle the call,” Conroy says.

Texting steals even more of your attention, but it’s not just the distraction that’s dangerous. As Johnstone points out, it hinders your maneuverability, too.

“You need to remove one of your hands from the handlebars to text, leaving you less able to brake effectively in case of emergency,” she says. “If you remove your right hand to text and are forced to slam on your left (front) brake to stop, you could be thrown over your handlebars. Remove your left hand and you increase the chance of skidding when squeezing your right brake too hard. Not to mention: your balance works best when you are looking ahead at where you are going.”

Of course, paying attention means more than seeing your surroundings; it’s just as important to hear what’s going on, too. The sound of a truck backing up, the cell-phone conversation of a distracted pedestrian, the excessively loud music of a motorist who is clearly more interested in his own ego than your safety — these audible clues allow us to ride defensively.

“The main reason you don’t want to wear headphones while riding is that they prevent you from hearing traffic as it approaches from behind you,” Johnstone says. “Cars, trucks, and buses sometimes pass cyclists too close, too fast and it can be quite alarming if you’re not expecting it. Ultimately, they impede your ability to react quickly to hazards and ride defensively.”

That doesn’t mean all bets are off when it comes to music. If you’ve got a smartphone, turn up the volume and put it in your front pocket, or in one of the many holders that attach to your handlebars or bags. That way you can still listen to M.I.A.’s latest single within the larger context of what’s going on around you.

But distracted riding isn’t just about your safety. When you’re inclined to take a call or reply to a text, just think about the last time a motorist fiddling with their cell phone put your safety at risk. I’d be hard pressed to recall a single ride where that didn’t happen. So let’s not be hypocrites. “Cyclists should lead by example when it comes to distracted cycling,” Conroy says. “If we don’t want motorists doing it, then we shouldn’t be doing it, either.”

Sure, we live in a fast-paced society. Yes, we feel the need to be constantly connected. But one reason I ride is to reclaim my autonomy and feel free of all those buzzing devices, if only for a couple of miles. And, just as importantly, I ride to feel part of my city, my community, at the gritty street level.

“Cycling is an activity that’s best enjoyed without distracting electronic devices,” Conroy says. “You’re more in tune with your own bike, with the world around you, with nature, and quite likely, in tune with probable hazards. Instead of tuning into your smart phone or MP3 player, tune into your cycling.”

Carolyn Szczepanski is the Communications Director for the League of American Bicyclists, which represents the interests of the nation’s 57 million cyclists. League Cycling Instructors across the nation offer classes in safe cycling; find a class near you at www.bikeleague.org/programs/education.

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