Drivers are increasingly impaired by phone calls and texts, and cyclists will pay the price until laws change
Last July, Bradley Walck was reading a text message behind the wheel of his pickup when he hit a mailbox. At least, that’s what he thought he hit. But when he looked into his rearview mirror, he saw another motorist running to the side of the road. Walck stopped and ran back, only to discover that he had hit Ardie Lewis, who had been riding his bike on the shoulder of the road north of Seminole, Oklahoma. Lewis, who was thrown 90 feet on impact, died soon after.
As cell-phone use becomes ubiquitous, there are increasing numbers of documented incidents of distracted drivers hitting cyclists they never even saw. But too many in our society think that they are somehow different and can safely drive while using a mobile device. This is the same delusion that contributes to drunk driving—people think they can “handle” the alcohol.
The comparison with drunk driving is more apt than any other. A University of Utah study demonstrated that cell use while driving creates a level of impairment equivalent to a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content, which is legally drunk in all 50 states. Other studies show that drivers who use a cell phone are four times more likely to become involved in a collision than drivers not using a phone, and the risk of collision rises to 20 times greater for drivers who text.
A week after Bradley Walck killed Ardie Lewis in Oklahoma, Illinois governor Pat Quinn signed Matt’s Law—named for cyclist Matt Wilhelm, who was killed in that state by a texting driver—which bans composing, sending and reading any “electronic message” while driving. In Utah, drivers who kill while texting face up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine; in Alaska, the sentence can be as much as 20 years. Still, only a handful of states have banned texting. What’s most remarkable is that 20 states, including Oklahoma, have considered texting legislation, but have failed to act.
Most states have not yet enacted limitations on cell use while driving. The failure of the states to act seems to be spurring the federal government: Pending legislation in the U.S. Senate would ban texting and hand-held use while driving nationwide.
Along with drunk drivers, who factor in nearly two-thirds of all cycling fatalities, motorists impaired by cell phones are among the most dangerous issues confronting cyclists today. The laws will change faster if we encourage legislators to adopt punishments reflecting the severity of the offense.
Meantime, stay off the phone when driving—you may think that, as a cyclist, you are more attuned to watching for bikes, but you become impaired like everyone else. While riding, assume that drivers are inattentive and be ready to take evasive maneuvers.
Research and drafting by Rick Bernardi, JD