A cyclist in Washington, D.C.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Ticky-tacky penalties are no way to accomplish Vision Zero, especially if they won’t be enforced equitably.

The District of Columbia is now one year into its Vision Zero effort to end traffic fatalities in the city, and there’s still a lot of work to do.

As D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently noted, traffic deaths fell by about half over the past decade. In 2016, the city saw a slight uptick in total traffic fatalities (from 26 to 28) and a hike in traffic injuries (from 12,122 to 12,430), while it enjoyed a 40 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities.

To get closer to zero, the District Department of Transportation’s Vision Zero D.C. initiative is currently accepting public comments on its second round of proposed rules changes. Examples include raising penalties for speeding or parking in bike lanes, efforts to disincentivize bad behavior among drivers on the road.

Those are good rules. One change, though, and arguably a whole category of rules, is a distraction that won’t improve safety a whit: A $50 fine for cyclists “riding with a headset, headphones, or earplugs covering both ears.”

Brian McEntee, the Washington City Paper’s Gear Prudence columnist, pointed out this proposal. It falls under a section of line items for raising various fines and fees on the road. For cyclists, the changes would hike the existing penalties for infractions such as biking while texting, hitching a ride on a car, and “excessive speed,” whatever that means. Those fines would each be raised to $50. But riding with earphones would be a new crime altogether.

This rule is a wrong turn. On the face of it, it’s unfair: Automobile drivers aren’t required to turn off their radios or take off their Bluetooth devices. Cyclists listening to go-go or S-Town on their commutes are not a greater danger than drivers who do the same.

But moreover, this rule would be unfair for D.C. even if it were implemented across the board. It’s akin to jaywalking, a policy that seems to serve the public interest but was designed for the benefit of drivers. Crackdowns on jaywalking in Los Angeles and New York have done nothing to make streets safer for pedestrians. The law has rarely served the public well. In Champaign, Illinois, between 2007 and 2011, 88 percent of people arrested for jaywalking were African American. In nearby Urbana, 91 percent of jaywalking arrests were black people. Both cities are just 16 percent black.

Even on the merits, banning buds on bikes might not improve safety much. A 2012 experiment by Australia’s RideOn magazine finds that a cyclist listening to ear buds hears much more traffic noise than a driver who isn’t listening to music. McEntee, who noted the study in a column on the subject, says he nevertheless refrains from wearing any.

“There’s something to be said for limiting distractions while biking in an unpredictable urban environment,” McEntee writes. “While I have ridden with headphones, I feel much safer without them.”

For his part, McEntee doesn’t like the rule and doesn’t think it will be enforced equitably. Even if banning cyclists from wearing sound devices did promote safety at the margins, the rule wouldn’t be worth it. Police in D.C. or elsewhere don’t need another tool to use to harass black kids, which is almost certainly all that would come of a law on biking while under the influence of music.

Fortunately, the District Department of Transportation has many much better ideas about how to achieve Vision Zero for the city. Cyclists shouldn’t be exempt from new regulations. For example, there’s a proposed $100 fine for those who collide with a pedestrian on a sidewalk. But one thing that will make this rule and others stronger: Making sure equity is front and center in the Vision Zero conversation.

CORRECTION: This article originally misspelled Champaign, Illinois.

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