Put Yourself In Another's (Bike) Shoes

Evan Manvel

The Oregon House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Rep. Mike Schaufler’s House Bill 2602 next week. The bill sets up a Class D traffic violation ($90) if, “A person operates a bicycle … while wearing a listening device that is capable of receiving telephonic communication, radio broadcasts or recorded sounds.”

Rep. Schaufler told BikePortland:

“I just saw some guy driving down the street on their bike with their headphones on and thought, ‘He could get run over.’ It’s a safety issue. It’s pretty cut and dry. It’s a very simple, very basic concept.”

As H.L. Mencken said, "For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.”

First, the bill singles out people riding bikes, ignoring people who walk, who are in many more traffic crashes and much more likely to be wearing headphones. Second, the bill creates a much stricter standard for people on bikes than people in cars, who cause orders of magnitude more distracted and deadly crashes. If the bill also required us to drive in radio-free convertibles with the top down, it might seem equitable. Third, the bill addresses the wrong side of the equation. If “he could get run over,” then we should address the behaviors of those doing the running over, instead of person on the bike. Fourth, there’s no allowance for what might be an acceptable noise level – it covers all sound. Fifth, while most agree blasting music while biking is a bad idea, that doesn’t mean enacting a law is a fair or effective way to change that behavior. Sixth, by making bicycling less enjoyable, it could result in more driving, pollution, and costs to the state. And so forth.

Yet my main concern is Rep. Schaufler introduced a bill to change someone else’s experience, without seeming to understand that experience himself.

That’s a concern Western Oregon legislators often hear when introducing bills to limit studded tires or regulate hunting practices -- “You don’t understand Eastern Oregon.” Rep. Schaufler apparently proposed a law based not on data or his personal knowledge, but on his instinctive reaction to a single person wearing headphones.

As a contrast, consider the work last session by Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland) and Rep. Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton) to reform water laws. Rep. Smith spent time on the ground in Eastern Oregon talking with local farmers and ranchers, and the legislature passed a historic reform of our water laws with bipartisan support.

Some have suggested Rep. Schaufler attend a listen-off. Rep. Schaufler would drive a current model car, designed to eliminate sounds from the outside (that alert him to other traffic and signs of danger), with the radio on, and traveling at an average car speed. Another citizen gets to be on a bicycle wearing headphones and traveling at average bike speed. The two are subject to a series of sounds and dangers and identify them – if they can. Afterward, participants would discuss their relative awareness of their surroundings.

Such experiences can change our minds. In 2009, the House heard a bill to change Oregon’s stop sign law to mirror the 30-year-old Idaho stop sign law, and allow cyclists to slow down instead of coming to a complete stop (fabulous video here). At the hearing, Rep. Nick Kahl said (paraphrased) “Last week I was opposed to this bill. This weekend I happened to buy a bicycle and biked around my neighborhood. Now I understand the bill and support it.” Unfortunately, not all legislators had the chance to do the same, and the bill died.

As the session continues, I urge legislators and advocates alike to work to put ourselves in the shoes of those affected by laws we’re considering. We may learn our basic concepts aren’t so cut and dry after all.

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    or he could ask bicyclists. i ride with both earbuds and a helmet mirror. i can hear cars approaching, but i never -- never! -- depend on that sound. i have no way to know what any noise behind me is: a car approaching, or driving away, or exploding. what matters is what you can see. my mirror is my #3 safety device (1: helmet, 2: lights). the music does not distract me (or podcasts) -- at least no more than it does in a car. and since i am far more vulnerable on a bike than in a car (which i learned first-hand Dec 2008, when a car made an illegal left turn and sent me to the hospital for 5 days), i pay extreme attention to what is around me. hence the mirror. the earbuds do not distract me & they do not keep me from hearing what i need to hear.

    Rep Schauffler claims to be an avid bicyclist. but he's not an urban bicycle commuter. if he was, he'd know that what we hear as we ride is the least important of all our senses. if i were deaf, i'd be as safe as i am today.

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    Here's my email to the Rep.

    Mr. Schaufler,

    Since the mid 90s I have ridden a bike some 80,000 miles on Oregon roads. I once told a work colleague that I would never listen to music or radio while riding. A few years ago I decided to try it. I listen mostly to NPR/OPB or other talk programming. I discovered that in spite of the added sensory input I still was far more aware of my surroundings when riding a bike compared to being in a car. On the bike and listening to radio I can still hear geese flying overhead, jetliners overhead, dogs barking inside houses, trains passing two miles away, and whether the approaching car is destroying the pavement with studded tires. Most of these noises would not be heard inside a car. I listen to the same type of thing while working. I find that when I'm concentrating on something like problem solving or how I'm going to negotiate the road hazards I'm facing, the audio input is lost. I think placing your suggested restriction on cyclists would be equivalent to forcing motorists to travel with windows open so they can hear better. Thanks for your safety concerns, but in my opinion this is a misguided concern.

    And here's his response:

    Cary, thank you for your thoughtful input. Ideas come and go. In the legislature we respectfully discuss thousands of ideas every session. I very much appreciate your input. I especially appreciate your sharing your personal experience. I wish everyone in this debate were as helpful, respectful and insightful as you. Keep up the good work.

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    We need to outlaw deaf people from driving or cycling.

    /Schaufler "logic"

    (rolls eyes)

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    The biggest problem I see with this proposal is that it singles out one mode of transportation. If you really think wearing headphones while operating a vehicle is a problem then ban it for all modes.

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      To even given the premise that hearing is a salient factor in operating a vehicle or riding a bike, then we should ban deaf people from operating driving or riding bikes.

      The entire premise of Schaufler proposal, or that he see a problem in need of addressing is flawed.

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    I also ride with an iPod, but unlike TA, I depend on my hearing to ride defensively. Of course, it's quite possible to have your music on quietly as you ride. Drivers can confirm this. So, from the rider perspective, it's a poorly-reasoned idea. (Though we must credit Rep Schaufler with good intentions--he wants to keep riders safe.)

    It also raises the question about enforcement. Does Oregon want its police monitoring which cyclists have earphones on? As a matter of public safety, the ROI on bikers injured due to music distraction (which may very well be nil) versus the amount of time and money it would cost to monitor it seem way out of whack.

    Where I COULD get on board is a cyclist cell-phone ban. The sole time I took a call while riding I almost wrecked. It's fantastically more difficult to ride and talk than it is to drive and talk.

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      I recently observed a bike rider texting while driving. I can't imagine attempting such a thing.

      I'm more concerned right now that police are not enforcing the texting and cell phone ban while driving. A hit and run driver who murdered a single father while texting just last week is a recent case in point.

      I would be interested if any actual studies have been done regarding bike riders and earphones.

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    What is this, the get tough on bicyclists legislative session? What's next - mandatory seatbelts on bikes?

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    First, most of the time pedestrians are on the sidewalk, not in the roadway. Second, listening to the radio in a car does not block out other ambient sounds; wearing earphones or earbuds does. A bicyclist listening to an iPod at high volume is a danger to himself and everybody else on the road.

    I don't understand the knee-jerk, paranoid reaction of many bicycle enthusiasts to all proposals to regulate their behavior, even if they would increase their safety and that of their children.

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      (sorry, there's something weird going on so I can't see who you are)

      Per your points:

      • Exactly the challenge. Pedestrians move in and out of the roadway, resulting in more crashes, because drivers aren't looking for them. Hence, more pedestrian fatalities and a bigger problem if pedestrians are distracted.

      • I'd love to have you join the personal experience, and see if you're able to travel in a glass enclosed box (car), at 35 mph, with the radio on, and have more awareness and reaction time than someone traveling at 12 mph, outside a box, listening to headphones. And the proposal doesn't distinguish between high and low volume.

      Second, I don't know if you're including my column as "knee-jerk, paranoid" but I think I gave at least six decent reasons the proposal is inappropriate. That's thoughtful and reality-based, not simply reactionary or "paranoid."

      Third, as far as people who bike reacting to proposals to regulate behavior - it's a big enough challenge to adopt to travel into an auto-dominated world, without additional hurdles. The Greenlick proposal would have required some people I know to take on $5,000 in additional annual costs by buying a car - or be constantly violating the law - or constantly stuck at home.

      If there were data either of these proposals would increase our safety or that of our children, we may have a different reaction. But the backers have offered no credible data toward that end. Instead, the most likely outcome is costly tickets for people on bikes who are perfectly able to look out for their own safety.

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        "Pedestrians move in and out of the roadway, resulting in more crashes, because drivers aren't looking for them."

        They're not supposed to be IN the roadway at all, except at crosswalks.

        "it's a big enough challenge to adopt to travel into an auto-dominated world, without additional hurdles."

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          Last part of post was omitted:

          "it's a big enough challenge to adopt to travel into an auto-dominated world, without additional hurdles."

          I don't understand how not being able to listen to tunes on your iPod while riding is an "additional hurdle."

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          Pedestrians often have little choice but to walk in the roadway, in crosswalks or not.

          In 2009, 986 people died while walking in crosswalks, more than 50% more than the total number of people killed while biking (630). Another 3,061 pedestrians died, some trying to cross roads.

          If you're worried about cutting down on distractions, pedestrians are much more likely to be distracted (though they're almost never the source of danger).

          If you don't think it's a hurdle (perhaps a poor word choice) to not listen to music, then support a law to ban all music and sounds in cars, walking, and biking.

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      Incidentally, it's worth noting that the recent law that requires the use of hands-free devices for making phone calls in cars has dramatically increased the use of earphones and earbuds while driving.

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      Loud music over car speakers can interfere with hearing ambient sound more than earphones at moderate volume. I speak from experience, not conjecture.

      I think bicyclists dislike regulations that emerge from lack of understanding.

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    I'm an avid cyclist, an almost everyday commuter, and I'm fine with this idea. I'm not screaming it needs to happen - but I'd be ok if it did.

    As I said in BikePortland's comments section:

    "i'm open to this and am interested to see where the discussion around the bill goes. i ride daily and go back and forth on the whole headphone issue.

    i agree with what what others said...

    "this energy should be for all modes to reduce distracted or impaired operations. (Cars, bikes, buses, etc.)"

    ...but am happy to see those come after since this is the first thing up for discussion and the only legislative concept that has been introduced.

    at the end of the day - if this save even just one cyclist from life changing/ending injury then i'll be supportive. i'll keep my fingers crossed that there is good, civil, and thoughtful discussion around the bill down in salem."

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