In terms of traffic fatalities, 2014 was the safest year for everyone on New York City’s streets since the turn of the century. Everyone, that is, except cyclists. Twenty people were killed in bike crashes last year—almost double the number of cyclist fatalities in the previous year—whereas pedestrian traffic deaths hit an all-time low.
On average, motor vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours, yet the City Council is weighing action on a bill that would penalize cyclists who text or use their phone while riding. Councilmember Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) introduced the bill after reportedly witnessing a near collision between a texting cyclist and a driver outside his office. Treyger’s insistence on the texting ban invites a great deal skepticism, given that the Councilmember’s overall contribution to the Vision Zero movement so far includes railing against the placement of speed safety cameras and pushing to exempt MTA bus drivers from the Right-of-Way Law.
We already know how to improve safety for people riding bikes, so why the newfound push to ban texting while biking? Texting while biking is an unwise course of action, even under the best conditions, but is it really a systemic problem?
Council Member Antonio Reynoso asked DOT how many pedestrian deaths are caused by cyclists on cell phones. “Zero per year,” [NYC DOT assistant commissioner Josh Benson] said. “We did not find any reports where texting was a factor in bike-related crashes.”
Pressed about the lack of data to support his bill, Treyger said “I don’t need to see data to know that [texting and biking] was wrong and dangerous.” While Treyger is certainly entitled to his opinion, writing legislation based on one near incident is simply legislating via anecdote. The bill serves mainly to solve a problem that does not exist. Combined with legitimate concerns over the existing courtroom backlog, and a history of questionable NYPD tactics towards cyclists, we are left with a bill that will do little more than burden our overtaxed justice system.
The City has made great strides towards becoming more bike friendly, and these efforts have paid off enormously. If Treyger and the City Council are truly concerned about street safety, they should work towards speeding up the citywide roll out of truck side guards, pushing the NYPD to better report bike crashes, and, like they did for bus rapid transit this week, expanding the city’s bike network. All of these policies could have a real effect on making the streets of New York safer, not just for people on bikes, but for everyone. Until then, let’s just call this texting ban what it is: a distraction from Vision Zero and a waste of time.