Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bicylists Against Superfluous Traffic Laws

My initial reaction to reading about a career politician seeking to criminalize the relatively benign act of talking on a cell phone while riding a bike was,"this is f**king stupid." Then I took a deep breath, went outside, stood in the rain to cool off, came back inside, reassessed my feelings and...no, they're still the same, this is totally f-ing stupid.

As reported in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel (or as us local folks call it, the "Senile"), www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_14452791 state senator Joe Simitian thinks it would be groovy to increase the fines for drivers who get caught using a cell phone and then apply the very same law to bicyclists, for as we all know, there is an epidemic of us out there riding, talking, and running into one-legged old ladies and handicapped children. And as usual, many fellow riders I talk to are either indifferent or think this would be a good idea.

Well, I've never been known for taking popular stands so here goes nothing...

The idea that traffic penalties designed for cars should be applied to bicycles is based on the underlying but seldom articulated premise that technologies are neutral and don't carry an inherent bias. This premise cuts across political and class lines as our society is at heart a technophile society, which is to say, if you ask a republican or democrat if technology is the key to progress for humanity, 9 times out of 10 they'll say yes.

The way this plays out in the real world is that a bicyclist can be pulled over and given a ticket for running a stop sign in an empty intersection, for under the eyes of the legal system, we are the same as cars....even if we all know this to be untrue. The fact that there's indeed a difference between a motorized vehicle and a non-motorized vehicle doesn't factor in to a legal system that is blind to the built in bias that comes with any given technology.

Ask yourself this: Does a bicyclist talking on a cell phone pose an equal or greater risk as a driver doing the same? If not, does the risk merit additional laws that can start at a fine but escalate to jail time if they are not paid? Should riding a bicycle require a type of driver's license for that matter?

These are important questions that I suspect will not be addressed by proponents of the legislation at hand.

Instead, the debate over this issue (if there is even going to be one) will falsely focus on safety - not personal discretion, individual autonomy or freedom. And as stated earlier, bikes are inherently safer than cars, cell phone or not - to argue that there's a major problem on our hands that must be solved by declaring certain behavior illegal and punishable by fines and whatnot is simply absurd.

Well, I for one, do not support criminalizing something as benign and unprevalent as riding a bike and using a cell phone. (And this is coming from someone who doesn't even like cell phones). Silly legislation such as this deserves a silly acronym for those against it - I propose we create BASTL: Bicyclists Against Superfluous Traffic Laws. If you wanna join this up and coming "special interest group," the first thing I encourage you to do is get on your cell phone or email account, call or write any of the following people and tell em' you ride a bike and you don't support another superfluous law. okay, go!

Senator Joe Simitian's Santa Cruz Office 831.425.0401 or http://www.senatorsimitian.com/contact

People Power 831.425.0665 or info@peoplepowersc.org

Santa Cruz Senile http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/submitletters


t.a. said...

sorry, you are completely wrong here.

first, bicycles are vehicles using public roadways. most of the same laws apply to them as cars. we do need some differentiations (the ability to treat stop signs as yields would be good: the Idaho Stop Law). but there are some common sense rules that need to apply to all road users, and the use of a cell phone is one of these.

bicyclists need to have 2 hands on the handlebars as much as possible. they need to pay attention. wearing headphones or talking on the phone endangers themselves & others. i don't own a car; i'm a bicycle commuter (freelance writer) and i'm all over the city (Portland) on bike. careless bicyclists put me at risk, and they poison the well of non-bicyclist attitudes.

and it's a proven hazard. scientifically proven.

there are rules & laws we must change, but this isn't one. this is one to endorse & enforce. and a fine is not criminalization: it's a penalty. big difference.

Bicicleta Bandito said...

Dear friend,

I see we have a difference of opinion here. While I can agree that bicyclists listening to an ipod or talking on the phone are indeed annoying at best and pose a minor risk to folks on the road at worse, in my opinion, this does not merit creating a law that penalizes such behavior - at least at the same level as driving a car.

I'd sooner have tax payer money go to a public safety campaign than threaten fines for something that statistically does not kill thousands of people each year the way cars do.

You know, not wearing a condom is stupid behavior too and theoretically poses a health risk to the general public but I wouldn't support a law criminalizing it, would you?

The same thing goes for mandatory helmet laws.

As to the difference between a penalty and crime - Anyone who's been to traffic court knows how easy it is for the "justice" system to escalate a case into something much worse. I don't know about you but I ride a bike not just to be "eco" righteous but also cuz' I can't afford a car, and I sure as hell can't afford a $100 ticket.

For what it's worth, I think this illustrates the divide between middle class liberal bicyclists and anarchists - the former have no problem extending the power of the state whenever possible provided it's under the guise of "safety." The latter view the police as already having too much power as it is to pull people over. And while the two groups aren't always mutually exclusive, I have to say I'm unequivocally with the latter on this one.