RBR: The Danger of Distracted Riding

This is a long read but one that I think is vital as we are faced with a new crop of electronic distractions — that we purchased and love — when we ride.


The Danger of Distracted Riding

These I believe to be true:

Roadies hate – hate! – seeing a driver with their mobile phone glued to their ear or, even worse, holding it in front of them as they text while driving.

Roadies love – love! – our bike computers, GPS and other electronic devices. These ever-advancing tools help us measure, gauge performance, map and explore the roads we ride.

But are our cycling gadgets becoming a bane to road safety, much like mobile phones? Is distracted riding a danger similar to distracted driving?

RBR reader Neal Bowser thinks so. And so do I.

Neal wrote us a few weeks ago with an illuminating story from a recent ride, along with info about a lawsuit concerning two airplanes crashing that could, paradoxically, have implications for cyclists.

First, the riding story.

“What brought this to mind was an incident that I observed while riding on BRAG (Bike Ride Across Georgia) this year,” Neal began. “I watched as a friend fiddled with his GPS unit while riding down a lonely country road. His attention was only diverted (according to him) for a few seconds, yet he came dangerously close to running off the side of the road and down into a deep ditch. Later, he also slowed down at an inappropriate and unexpected time and created yet another ‘almost’ incident! No one followed him after that.”

It’s bad enough simply dealing with overall traffic, uptight and distracted drivers on our rides.

“We inadvertently add to the problem,” Neal continues, “by using a plethora of sophisticated electronic devices that, by their nature, have the potential to divert our concentration away from our primary responsibility; that is, riding in a safe manner.”

Now, the airplane story.

“There’s currently an interesting liability case weaving its way through the legal system that, oddly, could impact cycling,” Neal wrote. “It involves two airplanes that collided mid-air, killing four people.

“The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident and determined that one pilot was negligent because his attention was focused on his Garmin GPS unit rather than on the ‘real world’ outside the cockpit. As a result, he overtook and collided with the other aircraft on a perfectly clear day.

“The estate of the at-fault pilot sued Garmin for not properly warning users of inherent distraction hazards and risks associated with electronic displays. This case could provide valuable insight into distraction hazards that affect our sport.”

Indeed, it’s not a stretch to imagine a cyclist crashing – and perhaps dying – under similar circumstances. The NTSB met recently to discuss the deadly ramifications of distracted driving, and one NTSB member thinks it will have to become a societal taboo — like drinking and driving — to be taken seriously enough.

“Distraction is becoming the new DUI (driving under the influence),” NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said. “This is going to reach epidemic proportions. It takes a generation or two to change it, but change is needed.”

So what can roadies do to continue to enjoy our on-board gizmos — but not at the expense of safety? Follow a set of common-sense guidelines, the same as we do for other activities that we accomplish while riding (like drinking, wiping, blowing, etc.). Here’s a starter list. (Feel free to add your own suggestions, and thoughts on the subject, on our Comments page.)

Bike computers and GPS units should only be set (or reset) while stopped.  Choosing the route, clearing your last ride’s data, etc., should become just another pre-ride (or post-ride) routine so you don’t have to mess with it when you’re rolling.

Never touch or look at your device while in a pace line.  This is the same rule we follow when drinking, blowing, eating, and such. And it’s even more important when it comes to an electronic device; it only takes a split-second distraction to make you veer off course, touch another wheel, not see a rider stand up, etc.

Only glance at your device or scroll to a different screen after first checking around you to make sure there are no other riders or cars nearby.  Keep a safety zone for your sake, and theirs. If you’ve never looked up from checking your device and realized you veered off your line, then you’re in the minority.

Just peek at your device, don’t stare at it.  Learn the screens or display of your device at home, sitting on the couch, so that you know exactly where to look to find the desired info while on a ride. Even then, keep your glances very, very brief.

Only check one piece of information at a time.  Don’t think you need to know your heart rate, the gradient of the climb, and your average speed all at once. Establishing in your mind the ONE thing you’re going to look at when you glance down will help you avoid wandering all over the screen.

Spend your time exploring metrics at home, after the ride.  Many devices allow us to download our data onto websites, into spreadsheets, and email it to friends. If you want to dive deep into your ride metrics, do it from the comfort and safety of home.

As Neal so aptly put it in his email to me: “We need to retain as many of our senses as possible, and remain alert and responsive.”

Stay focused, my friends.

Enjoy Your Ride!

John Marsh

Editor & Publisher, Road Bike Rider


Published with permission from RBR Newsletter or RoadBikeRider.com. Copyright 2011 RBR Publishing Co. Inc. All rights reserved. RBR Newsletter is a free weekly newsletter emailed to road cyclists around the world. It is posted every Thursday athttp://www.roadbikerider.com/current-newsletterRoadBikeRider.com provides expert advice, tips and shared knowledge to road cycling enthusiasts. Its eBookstore, http://www.roadbikerider.com/ebookstore, features in-depth eBooks and eArticles on all aspects of fitness, training, skills and tech.

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