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As bicycling gains in popularity, more cities will have to confront the question.

By now, most American states have some law in place against distracted driving, but those rules are reserved for a moving motor vehicle. Laws against distracted cycling have failed to break through at the state level. A few individual cities have established rules against riding a bike and using a cell phone (without a hands-free device), but such regulations are far from sweeping.

Whether you're for or against distracted cycling rules — more on that in a moment — you can't deny that using a cell phone changes the way a person rides a bike. If logic alone doesn't convince you, there's plenty of empirical evidence to do so. The foremost research team on the subject comes from the psychology department of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

The group's most recent work, published this month, observed 24 test participants engaging in common cycling activities as they rode along a public bike path. Some texted on a smartphone, some texted on a conventional cell phone, some texted and listened to music simultaneously, some spoke on the phone, some spoke to a cyclist beside them, some even played a phone game. A few rode without doing any secondary task.

In every case where a phone was involved, bicycle speed was reduced compared to riders who weren't engaged in a secondary task. "Lateral position variation" — the technical term for veering or swerving — also increased when cyclists were on their phones. Cyclists on phones also detected fewer signs planted along the bike route. Riders using touch screens generally fared worse than those on conventional phones.

The study should be taken for what it is: a controlled study of cycling behavior that took place outside real world conditions. Still, combined with similar findings in previous research from the Groningen group (including a study showing that hands-free phone use didn't eliminate distraction), the work suggests pretty clearly that riding a bike is tougher when using a phone. The current study concludes that cycling on a smartphone, in particular, will "pose a threat to traffic safety."

So it's fair to say that distracted cycling should, at the very least, be on the radar of city officials in charge of public safety. At the same time, it's not clear whether or not the problem warrants action.

Some cyclists argue that using a phone on a bike shouldn't be regulated because distracted riders aren't much of a danger. Certainly they aren't anywhere near as much of a hazard as distracted drivers. Then again, distracted cyclists could endanger pedestrians or cause a car to swerve into another, and it seems reasonable to assume that distracted cycling accounts for at least as many hospital visits a year as distracted walking (1,500 by the most recent estimate).

Still, at the end of the day, the biggest threat distracted cyclists pose is to themselves. In that sense, some cities may see distracted cycling rules the same way they deal with helmets: something that should be mandatory for young people but optional for older riders. Indeed, at least in the Netherlands, the odds of being in a crash increase for young riders who habitually use an electronic device compared to those who don't, but not older ones.

Cities that do regulate cycling would be wise to consider the model set by Chicago, where cyclists receive a fine for distracted riding that's considerably smaller than the one received by distracted drivers ($20 to $75 as of 2011). That seems equitable, not just because cyclists pose less of a danger, but because they're far more vulnerable to enforcement. They can't hide phone use from a police officer as drivers can, and the windshield perspective of many police forces might lead to unfair targeting.

As cycling gains in popularity, more cities will have to confront the question of whether or not to ban distracted riding. But before they do, especially in these fiscally challenged times, it's worth weighing the cost of enforcing the law against that of protecting the public in other ways — namely, creating safer bike infrastructure. One may discourage unsafe behavior from a few riders, sure. The other will encourage safe riding for everyone.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user TimQuijano.

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