Cycling expert questions Street Smarts on hands-free cell phone law

Dear Street Smarts, Q: Your recent publication that bicycles are not subject to cell phone laws is incorrect. California Vehicle Code section 21200 states that 'Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division...’ This code section makes the cell phone law applicable to bicycles whether or not the law was specifically written for motor vehicles. DMV does not enforce the traffic laws, law enforcement does. Did you check with any law enforcement source before publishing such an article? Did you inquire about section 21200 when you asked Mr. Botello your questions? As a League of American Bicyclists, League Cycling Instructor, we are required to know the vehicle code and how it applies to bicycles in order to properly educate cyclists how to operate their bicycles safely. I know that this is a local paper, but providing the public with incorrect information when it comes to the law and safety is an injustice to the community. Sincerely, Kate Cassera, via email A: Thank you for your letter, but you are mistaken in your interpretation of the law. California's hands-free cell phone law specifically targets motor vehicles. Bicycles are not motorized, they are people-powered. Also, while there is that rule that cyclists can be held subject to the same laws as automobiles, the CVC makes a point to specify the rules of the road as they pertain to cyclists in separate sections. Such is the case for laws that cover DUI, lighting and obeying traffic signals. But for this law, the CVC does not offer a section or subsection that specifically targets cyclists. As for my methods of tracking down the information printed in this column, I read the cell phone law, as well as the law you sent me before seeking advice from local experts, including law enforcement. Each source gave me a different answer, thus continuing Dianne and her husband's debate. That's when I turned to the DMV's Sacramento headquarters. Typically, before issuing an answer, DMV representatives research the law, both by looking it up in the CVC and running it by the DMV's legal department to make sure their interpretation is correct. After reading your email, I gave another call to the DMV and added the CHP headquarters in Sacramento to my list. They both confirmed that CVC sections 23123 and 23124 are specific to motorized vehicles. Officials at both agencies field this question often, but still referred to the CVC before answering the question. Personally, I encourage you to continue to suggest that cyclists use hands-free devices to chat on their cell phones while they ride. It's the safer thing to do.
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2 Responses to Cycling expert questions Street Smarts on hands-free cell phone law

  1. Michael Lewis says:

    Ramona, please do not give such poor advice to your readers, suggesting that bicyclists should use hands-free cell phones while they are riding on our streets.

    Cell phones are a distraction, no matter how they are used. Numerous international studies have demonstrated no difference in driver distraction between hands-free and hand-held cell phones. The only reason cell phone use is not completely banned while driving is political expediency.

    Suggesting that bicyclists use hands-free cell phones while riding is irresponsible. Please print an immediate retraction and explain fully the dangers of driving and bicycling while distracted by cell phones.

  2. Tom Cassera says:

    Hi Ramona,

    Thanks for bringing this gray area topic to light.

    As Cycling Instructors, Kate and I will not suggest to cyclists that it is safer to use hands free devices to chat or text while riding a bicylcle. It is dangerous plain and simple.

    I contacted the California Bicyle Coalition in Sacramento about your article. CBC board member and cycling attorney Gary Brustin provided a legal review for their current publication.

    Here’s the text of his article:

    Are bicyclists subject to California’s ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving?

    What the law says: California Vehicle Code sections 23123, 23123.5 and 23124 prohibit motor vehicle drivers from using hand-held cell phones to make or receive phone calls or write, send or receive text messages while driving. These sections do not mention bicycles or bicyclists.

    The rest of the story: California Vehicle Code section 21200 states, “Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle.” (In this context, “highway” is intrepreted to mean any public roadway.) To date, no court has been asked to look at the CVC cell-phone provisions in light of this section and decide whether they also apply to bicyclists – so it’s too soon to say that a bicyclist can’t or won’t be cited for violating them.

    Nevertheless, a bicyclist can be cited for chatting or texting while riding if a law enforcement officer feels the bicyclist’s actions present a hazard on the road at that moment. For the same reason an officer could cite a bicyclist for eating a sandwich or applying make-up or changing clothes if doing so while riding were deemed unsafe – even though none of those activities is specifically banned. It’s the hazardous nature of doing these activities while riding on a public roadway, and not the activities themselves, that makes them potentially unlawful.

    The take-away: The fact that cell phone use by bicyclists isn’t specifically prohibited doesn’t mean it’s safe or necessarily legal for bicyclists to call or text while riding — it just means the law hasn’t yet caught up with common sense and best practices. The spirit of the law is as important to consider as the letter of the law.

    Riding a bicycle while distracted by a cell phone presents as much of a hazard to other roadway users (including bicyclists and pedestrians) as driving a car while distracted by a cell phone. If you need to use one while riding, do as motorists are encouraged to do: simply pull over first.

    Thanks again Ramona for writing about current topics regarding Sharing the Road & motorist, bicyclist, and pedestrian safety.

    Take care,

    Tom Cassera

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