Peddling past the law

By Vanessa Morton

Chicago bicyclists have just received a reminder to keep their eyes on the road as they face a newly proposed ordinance that would try to eliminate accidents caused

by distractions.

Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th Ward) has crafted an ordinance that would ban the use of any hand-held device, which would include talking or texting on a cell phone, while riding a bike.

The “common-sense ordinance” was introduced in a City Council meeting on Sept. 8 and given to Laurino’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, of which she is chair.

According to the alderman’s spokesman, Manuel Galvan, Laurino created the plan with the intent of enforcing the same rules of the road that motorists have to abide by.

“What [Laurino’s] doing is leveling the playing field,” Galvan said. “Right now motorists are not allowed to text or use their cell phones while driving unless they have a hands-free device, so it’s just making it even.”

If passed, the ordinance could mean fines for accidents resulting from texting while biking.

Currently the ordinance would impose fines up to $500 if a biker is involved in an accident while texting and $50 if a biker is ticketed by police, but Galvan said that is subject to change. Instead, the fines may be based on a sliding scale, so the fine for a first offense may be less.

Galvan explained that the ordinance is currently going through revisions based on feedback given by different key individuals, such as the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Department of Transportation. And while the ordinance is in the process of getting revised, Galvan said a date won’t be set to vote until everything is complete.

“She wanted to make sure that several key individuals in groups saw the ordinance and had a chance to comment on it before the hearing,” Galvan said. “She’s getting feedback from all of these different groups, and once revisions are made, it will be voted on.”

Adolfo Hernandez, director of advocacy and outreach with the ATA, said a bicyclist getting into accidents as a result of texting is not something he usually hears a lot about. However, he said the organization doesn’t see any sort of disagreement with the ordinance. He agreed bicyclists should have to follow the same rules of the road as motorists would.

“We’ve been strong advocates to make sure that motorists aren’t distracted while driving with things like making phone calls and texting,” Hernandez said. “So, in a way, this is a really common-sense approach that we think is more of an educational opportunity for bicyclists.”

However, he said the organization’s concern comes from enforcement and wants to see more enforcement being implemented on motorists driving on the road.

“While we’re OK with this ordinance being passed and enforced, we also want to make sure the enforcement is treated on the other end,” Hernandez said. “Motorists are encased in at least 2,000 pounds of metal, and the potential to cause damage is a lot greater.”

While the ATA supports the alderman’s proposed ordinance, there are others in the bicycling community who still feel skeptical about the outcome.

James Freeman, owner and attorney of a personal self-injury practice in the city and writer for a Chicago bike blog,, said while it makes sense that bicyclists shouldn’t text while they ride their bike, he doesn’t think this ordinance is a big deal. Freeman said his problem comes from lack of law enforcement, not only with bicyclists but with traffic laws in general.

“Coming from my experience, bicycle laws are largely and completely unenforced in the city of Chicago,” Freeman said. “So, as a practical matter, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, it’s just a complete waste of time.”

According to Freeman, the alderman’s proposed ordinance is just language. He said it’s because of the lack of bicycle enforcement that bicyclists have grown a bad image, which he calls a “lawless road biker reputation.” He explained the lack of enforcement as a disservice to cyclists and the city in general.

“I don’t see any reason at all why all of a sudden they are going to try to pass a no texting law,” Freeman said. “My attitude is enforcement is a wonderful educational tool that society has at its fingertips, and we’re not utilizing that tool in the city of Chicago.”