Texting while bicycling in Chicago could soon equal a ticket

Chicago cops could ticket bicyclists who text while riding on city streets under a proposal endorsed today by a panel of aldermen.

The proposal, recommended by the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, also would make it illegal to talk on a cell phone without a hands-free device while biking on the road. If approved Wednesday by the full council, the ban will go into effect next month.

“This ordinance basically levels the playing field between motorists and bicyclists,” said Ald. Margaret Laurino, 39th, chairman of the committee and sponsor of the measure. “Like drivers, bicyclists will not be able to text while moving. Nor will bicyclists be able to use their cell phones unless they utilize a hands-free device.”

The fine for a first offense would be $20 to $50. For a second offense, it would be $50 to $75, and for a third or subsequent offense, it would be $75 to $100. If the offense came during a traffic accident, the fine could go as high as $500.

“As bicyclists are road users with the same rights and duties as drivers, bicyclists should operate under the same restrictions,” said Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of project development in the Chicago Department of Transportation. “Distracted cyclists get in the way of other road users, leading to situations that can result in crashes involving motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. . . . In a crash, cyclists can cause serious harm to pedestrians.”

In 2010, cyclists were involved in more than 1,600 crashes, in which five people were killed, she said. “This ordinance will address one of the risky behaviors by road users that can lead to crashes,” she said.

Also backing the measure was Adolfo Hernandez, director of outreach and advocacy for the pro-cyclists Active Transportation Alliance.

“We’ve been looking out for cyclists rights for more than the past 25 years,” Hernandez said. “Even we are in complete support of the this bike text ban ordinance. It makes complete sense. . . . As users of the road, we have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists.”

But Hernandez also suggested the primary focus of traffic enforcement should be on vehicles. “About 5,000 deaths on U.S. roads in 2009 involved distracted-driving motor vehicle crashes,” he said. “That’s drivers who are driving using a handheld device, and about close to 50,000 injuries involved a distracted driver in a motor vehicle. . . . We just hope for fair and balanced enforcement that protects the most vulnerable users of the road.”

Laurino, who described herself as a “proponent of cycling,” said the issue of folks on phones talking and texting was first brought to her by colleagues after recent hearings on cycling.

“I think it’s common sense,” she said. “As a result of raising this issue, I’ve heard from all parts of the city of Chicago, police that live even in the suburbs, that have brought it to my attention that, yes indeed, they have seen cyclists texting. . . . I’ve actually seen people riding and texting with both hands. I’m not quite sure how they do that, but I have noticed that myself.”