Council proposal: No texting or hand-held cell calls for bicyclists

SHARE Council proposal: No texting or hand-held cell calls for bicyclists

Bike riders use cell phones while riding along North Avenue Beach, Tuesday, September 13, 2011. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

Chicago’s burgeoning band of bicyclists would have to abide by the same rules of the road as motorists – no talking on hand-held cell phones or texting while riding – under a crackdown proposed by an influential alderman.

Ald. Marge Laurino (39th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, called it a “common-sense ordinance” that’s needed to protect pedestrians and level the playing field between motorists and bike riders.

“It really is about distracted drivers – no matter what you’re driving. I’m looking to make the streets safer for everyone: motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians,” Laurino said.

“I’ve witnessed bicyclists texting while they’re in traffic. I’ve seen them talking on the phone. I’ve seen the same thing with motorists and pedestrians. It might be difficult to enforce the hands-free device for bicyclists. But, this is a discussion we need to have with the community.”

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance formed to promote biking, walking and mass transit use, said he supports the “ordinance and its objectives.”

“We’ve all seen people doing this. It’s a bad idea. It’s not safe. It’s not respectful of other people biking, walking and driving. We support where she’s going with this,” Burke said.

But, if the City Council approves the crackdown, Burke said he’s concerned that the “rarely enforced” ban on texting and talking on a cell phone while driving will get even less attention from already inundated Chicago Police officers.

“What’s equally important is to figure out how to enforce this. When it comes to choosing their enforcement priorities, we’d like to see them focus on protecting bicyclists and pedestrians who are the most vulnerable users of the road,” he said.

Transportation Department spokesman Brian Steele noted that “all modes of transportation – motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians – unfortunately are distracted … Any time you remove a distraction – regardless of the mode – you’re helping to improve safety.”

In 2005, Chicago became the nation’s largest city to prohibit motorists from using cell phones without a hands-free device that allows the driver to keep both hands on the wheel.

Only three exceptions were permitted: law enforcement officers and operators of emergency vehicles “on duty and acting in their official capacities,” motorists calling 911 and drivers using their cell phones while parked.

Three years later, the City Council took aim at an equally dangerous distraction: texting and surfing the Internet while driving.

Now, Laurino wants to apply those same rules to bicycle riders.

The ordinance she quietly introduced at last week’s City Council meeting states, “No person shall operate a bicycle while using a communication device” that includes a cell phone, PDA, portable or mobile computer designed to transmit and receive e-mails, texts or other electronic messages. It would carve out an exception for hands-free cell phones, as the rules for motorists do.

Violators would face a $50 fine. If the violation occurs “at the time of a traffic accident” the fine would rise to $500. The same exceptions would apply.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is an avid cyclist who campaigned on a promise to make Chicago the “bike friendliest city in the country” – by installing 100 miles of protected bike lanes during his first four years in office.

One-half mile of protected lanes are already in place on Kinzie between Milwaukee and Wells. A second protected lane is expected to be installed next month on Jackson between Damen and Halsted.

Chicago already has 125 miles of painted bike lanes used by 10,000 of recreational bike riders and commuters.

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