A southern Brooklyn pol’s bid to ban text-messaging while biking is a misguided attempt to score political points in the car-centric district and fundamentally misunderstands the dangers cyclists face, according to bike advocates.
The car critics blasted Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Bensonhurst) for his bill that would make it a crime to tap the coordinates to tonight’s party while piloting a bicycle. The activists argue that the legislation is a diversion from the need for police enforcement targeting motorists, who are responsible for the vast majority of road deaths, and for car-slowing measures by the Department of Transportation.
“Legislating over texting while biking is a dangerous distraction from what is actually killing people,” said Keegan Stephan, a former Williamsburg resident and activist with the group Right Of Way. “This is not just a net zero. It is a net negative because it calls for NYPD and DOT resources that could be used elsewhere.”
Treyger said he was inspired to write up the legislation when he saw a distracted cyclist swerve into traffic while text-messaging. The bill, introduced on Nov. 13, would make text-messaging while biking a violation, punishable by a $50 fine on the first offense if it results in an injury or property damage, and as much as $200 for subsequent offenses. The law would also mandate that the transportation and police departments come up with a bike-safety education program for offenders to attend.
The legislation has the backing of 13 other Council members, including Councilman Carlos Menchaca (D–Sunset Park) who bikes to work at City Hall and to community meetings around his district, as the New York Daily News reported.
Treyger said his law is in line with Mayor DeBlasio’s Vision Zero campaign to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2024, though he acknowledged that drivers deserve more scrutiny to that end. But bike activists scoffed at the idea that the looming legislation would do anything to help road safety, and said that Treyger should be driven by data, not incidents from his commute.
“I have never had someone come to me and say they injured or struck someone because they were texting while biking,” said Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who specializes in representing cyclists. “If an anecdote was our standard for calling for new legislation we would have countless laws for situations that just don’t come up.”
Stephan also criticized Treyger for focusing on cyclist behavior when he could be adding bike-insulating infrastructure to his automobile-oriented turf below Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s proverbial Mason-Dixon line.
“If we created more bike lanes instead of diverting resources to teaching bicyclists how to ride safely, we would solve everyone’s problems,” he said. “Treyger doesn’t have a single bike lane in his district. Maybe he should focus on that instead.”
In fact, Treyger’s district includes a single, solitary bike lane, along Neptune Avenue in Coney Island, and notably, the bike path along Ocean Parkway, which is the oldest in the nation. But the two-wheeler accommodations are a far cry from the many miles of bike lanes that crisscross neighborhoods from Red Hook to Greenpoint, roughly coinciding with this newspaper’s coverage area.
Treyger’s legislation is an attempt to close a loophole in a state law that outlaws text-messaging while driving but explicitly applies only to people operating a moving vehicle, leaving bicyclists free to tap away. The motorist-only clause has not stopped police from slapping cyclists with apparently bogus tickets for using their phones on the go. As of Nov. 9, cops had cited cyclists 423 times citywide for using a cellphone while riding, almost twice as many tickets as the 213 written in 2013. The data provided by the Police Department does not specify which law cyclists were cited under, and a police rep declined to specify, but Treyger said the tickets likely lie on shaky legal ground.
“I’d love for the NYPD to point to what law they are using to write those tickets,” Treyger said. “If a police officer is taking actions or enforcing laws that don’t exist, it is certainly troubling.”
Stephan and Vaccaro both acknowledged that text-messaging while biking is dangerous, and Vaccaro praised the creation of a city-backed bike safety program. But both said that if the city is going to crack down on cyclists, other behaviors are more alarming, such as biking while under the influence.
“The procedural aspects are good, but the fundamental thrust of the law is flawed,” Vaccaro said. “It would be best to apply it elsewhere.”