Distracted cycling: Earbuds, phones and multitasking

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headphonesAt the beginning of May, the Vancouver Police Department announced that – in conjunction with other police departments across the province – they were going to be “targeting” high-risk driving during the month of May. VPD Staff Sgt. Jack Sarna was quoted in the article that the most common high-risk activity that he observes is distracted driving. The media focused on motorists, but “distracted driving” — in particular using a cell phone while driving — is a behaviour you can see in cyclists too.

On one day on my ride to work last week, shortly after the announced “crackdown,” I saw three motorists with cells to their ears as they drove by me on the bike route. On a ride home the very same week, I had to deal with two cars stopped at green lights because their drivers were looking down at their mobile instead of up at the light.

For some reason, the place I notice the most people on cell phones are those who have just dropped their kids off at one of the many schools that I drive by on my ride to work. They drop off little Johnny or Jane at school then reach for the phone as they pull away. Clearly “distracted driving” by motorists is a safety issue for cyclists.

But what about cyclists themselves? I occasionally see cyclists riding along, usually pretty slowly, with phones pushed up to their ears. Rarely I see the odd person texting. Last week (it was an odd week) I saw a guy remove his cycling jacket and stuff it into the backpack he was wearing while continuing to cycle along the bike route. It was both remarkable and frightening. Clearly these cyclists can’t react to sudden problems on the road with sufficient reaction time. And the path that they follow, meandering here and there as they maintain a generally forward motion, is hard for both bikes and cars that might want to pass or just avoid running into them.

Probably the biggest issue in “distracted cycling”, though is the issue of headphones. Many cyclists ride with earbuds in both ears. In Vancouver, this is illegal. The City of Vancouver Street and Traffic By-Law No. 2849 stipulates that “No person shall ride a bicycle upon a street while wearing headphones, or any other manufactured device capable of transmitting sound, over or in close proximity to both ears …” (emphasis mine) I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a cyclist being stopped by the police for violating this bylaw, though.

Here’s confession time: I commute daily by bike … and I ride with an earbud in. One, mind you, on the right (non-traffic) side. I listen to either audiobooks, podcasts, or talk radio. I find that it’s an efficient way to pass the time: I stay up to date with the news or whatever topic of interest. I’ve found that I cannot listen to music while riding: it’s too distracting and I can’t hear well enough. With spoken word audio, though, the breaks in the speech make a huge difference. The other thing I do is keep the volume down. Generally speaking, if I’m going over ~35 km/h on my bike, the wind noise exceeds the volume of whatever it is I’m listening to. If I encounter someone I know on my ride, I’m able to have a normal conversation with them without having to take the earbud out. In short, I don’t feel that this is a “distracted driving” situation.

I do think that riding with headphones/earbuds while listening to music, and in particular in both ears while riding is a problem. It seems like they’re in their own little world as they’re riding along, and then we’re back to the distracted driving problem. And clearly, I’m not alone.

What do you think? Is distracted driving by cyclists a problem? Is riding with headphones an issue? Do you ride with headphones/earbuds?

Last modified: May 13, 2012

5 Responses to " Distracted cycling: Earbuds, phones and multitasking "

  1. runDRD says:

    What makes talking on a cellphone while driving dangerous, or “distracted driving” isn’t so much the fact that your hands are occupied, it’s that your brain is occupied. So while you’re focusing on the conversation in your ear, you can’t be 100% focused on the task at hand, safely commuting on your bicycle. Perhaps the one earbud is safer because you stand a better chance at hearing cars honking or whatnot, but to say “…I don’t feel that this is a “distracted driving” situation” strikes me as trying to justify ones own bad habits while criticizing others.

  2. Anthony says:

    @runDRD Well, obviously I think that being a passive participant (ie just listening) to something is vastly different than being an active participant (cell phones). When just listening, it’s easy (and common) to “tune out” whatever’s going into your ear and pay attention to what’s going on around you. When you’re participating, that’s much, much harder. Of course, if you’ve got music in both ears going at full blast, it’s much, much harder to tune it out.

  3. Kitsilano2012 says:

    Don’t the Vancouver Police have better things to do than harass the residents of Vancouver. Vancouver is turning into a police state. Freedoms are being restricted. why do people put up with this crap behavior from their police?

  4. runDRD says:

    @anthony i completely agree with the difference between being a passive participant and an active participant. However it would seem to me that to comprehend the information in an audiobook requires active listening skills. I could be wrong though. (all due respect).

    @Kitsilano2012 Get a life.

  5. Christine says:

    I’m sorry @Kitsilano2012, but Vancouver is hardly a police state. Laws are put in place to keep society from collapsing. I personally am grateful that we have a good police force and highly respect police officers. Yes, I was pissed when I got a ticket for not wearing a bike helmet and yes I would like them to focus their efforts on violent crimes, but I think you are wrong when you say that our freedoms are being restricted. Go live in Liberia, Somalia, Syria, Kandahar… for a while and see what’s like.