Using your phone on the bike is dangerous. Or so we've been told for many years. Now a Dutch study has found that there is no direct link between bike accidents and phone use.
Phone use on the bike is a common sight. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com
In many countries it is forbidden to make a phone call or send messages while driving a car. However, in Holland it is still perfectly legal to use your phone while you are cycling, even though it is considered dangerous. Over the past years there has been much discussion whether there should be legislation forbidding phone use on the bike.
In 2015 the then Minister of Infrastructure Schultz van Haegen said that using the phone on the bike wouldn't be forbidden, as enforcing such a law would be near impossible. Instead, there was to be a large-scale campaign aimed at changing the behaviour of cyclists.
It turned out that all the awareness lessons at school and prizes you could win if you didn't use your phone while you were cycling, didn't make much of a difference. The group of cyclists most at risk because they are concentrating too much on their phone, are children and young adults (12 to 21 years). The phone is to blame for 20% of the accidents in which this group of cyclists are involved.
Most are minor accidents, like falling off the bike or bumping into a tree or lamppost. The death of a 13-year-old boy who was so busy with his Spotify playlist that he wasn't paying attention to other traffic, brought home what the consequences could be. Around 75% of the Dutch population thinks that phone use on the bike should be forbidden - amongst the group of over 55s this is even 90%!
In 2016 Minister Schultz van Haegen announced that she was preparing a bill to forbid phone use on the bike. If the law was to be implemented, it wouldn't be until 2019 at the earliest. She stated that enforcing this legislation was still a major issue, but "a ban naturally has the great advantage that it sets a clear norm".
While everyone seems to agree that using your phone when you are cycling is dangerous, until now there hasn't been any real scientific evidence that it does indeed compromise road safety. So researchers from Delft looked into the link between traffic accidents and phone use.
Professor in Transport Policy Bert van Wee and colleagues from the Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) carried out an internet survey amongst 2249 cyclists, divided into three age groups - teenagers, adults and elderly cyclists. The survey only included cyclists who went out on their bikes at least once a week and had no major hearing deficiencies.
Respondents were asked about three things:
- Recent cycling clashes or incidents that almost led to a crash
- Frequency of device use and type of use (listening to music, phone calls, messaging, searching for information) while cycling in general and while cycling in more demanding traffic situations
- Specific traffic situations in which they decided not to listen to music or talk on the phone
Against even their own expectations, the researchers didn't find a link between traffic accidents and phone use. "We have to give our results some good thought. Maybe the results are skewed. This could happen if only the more agile cyclists dare to undertake these activities," says Van Wee.
The research did show that cyclists look around more frequently and reduce their speed when they use their phone. Van Wee: "This compensatory behaviour could also explain why we didn't find a link between phone use and accidents. Other possible factors: maybe our sample was not big enough, or maybe respondents lied about their crashes and phone use out of shame."
Not that dangerous
The Dutch media picked up on the surprising outcome of the research with catching headlines such as 'Messaging on the bike not so dangerous' and 'New research: danger of messaging on bike not so great'. Interesting, as Van Wee clearly states that the results are not an excuse to use your phone on the bike. "It is risky to think: it doesn't make any difference, I can listen to music or talk on the phone, as it doesn't affect safety. That is a very dangerous conclusion."
Based on my own experience with phone users on the cycle paths, I very much agree that using your phone on the bike causes unsafe behaviour - even if it can't be linked to more accidents. It's really annoying when cyclists don't pay attention to where they are going and other traffic. I have learnt to recognise the signs of phone users on the bike and adapt my behaviour to avoid unsafe situations. And I won't be the only one to do so, which might also help explain the surprising results.
Are you planning to cycle in Holland and don't have much experience with cyclists using their phone? Here are some tips to avoid unsafe situations:
- If someone is wearing headphones they won't always hear your bell. Make sure there is enough room to overtake, or stay behind them.
- If someone is cycling slowly in not such a straight line in the middle of the cycle path with only one hand on the handle bars, they are most likely using their phone. Make sure there is enough room to overtake, or stay behind them.
- Take care when overtaking, as people might be taken by surprise and react unpredictably. Verbal abuse is not uncommon.
- In the dark you will see the light emitted by the screen. If the cyclists has no bike lights this can actually be very useful!