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No texting or talking will bring bike riders into line with motorists in Illinois…but cycling opinion is divided

Cyclists in Chicago face being fined while texting or speaking on a gand-held mobile phone while riding in a proposal designed to bring them into line with the city’s motorists, who are already subject to such a ban.

Alderman Margaret Laurino, chairman of the city’s Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, who sponsored the proposed legislation, told the Chicago Tribune: “This ordinance basically levels the playing field between motorists and bicyclists.

“Like drivers, bicyclists will not be able to text while moving,” she continued.

“Nor will bicyclists be able to use their cell phones unless they utilize a hands-free device.”

The proposal has been recommended by Ms Laurino’s committee and now goes before the full council tomorrow. If passed, the ordinance is scheduled to come into effect next month.

Transgressors would face a sliding scale of fines depending on whether it was a repeat offence, or if the use of the phone coincided with a traffic incident, reports the newspaper.

First-time offenders would face a fine of between $20 and $50. That would rise to $50-75 for a second ticket, and $75-100 for a third. If associated with a traffic incident, the fine could reach $500.

Current traffic law in the state of Illinois, which includes Chicago, sees motorists under the age of 19 banned from using a mobile phone while driving, whether hands-free or not.

There is a total ban on drivers using their phones to text, email or surf the internet, or to use them, even hands-free, in zones around schools, building sites and at roadworks. Fines vary from $100 to $500.

“As bicyclists are road users with the same rights and duties as drivers, bicyclists should operate under the same restrictions,” commented 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.”

According to the newspaper, Ms Hamilton said that last year 1,600 crashes took place involving cyclists, resulting in five deaths.

“This ordinance will address one of the risky behaviors by road users that can lead to crashes,” she added.

There was no report of whether those incidents Ms Hamilton cited were confined to the Chicago area, whether those killed were cyclists, pedestrians or some other class of road user, what part mobile phone use may have played or the extent of blame apportioned to cyclists.

The ordinance does have support from cycling campaigners, however, with Adolfo Hernandez, director of outreach and advocacy at the Active Transportation Alliance saying: “We’ve been looking out for cyclists’ rights for more than the past 25 years.

“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.”

However, Mr Hernandez said that law enforcement officials should focus primarily on drivers illegally using mobile phones, due to the increased danger they present to other road users.

“About 5,000 deaths on U.S. roads in 2009 involved distracted-driving motor vehicle crashes,” he explained.

“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.”

Ms Laurino, who says she is a “proponent of cycling,” described banning cyclists from using hand-held mobile phones as “common sense.”

She continued: “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.”

While drivers in the UK are banned from using a hand-held mobile phone at the wheel, there is no comparable specific legislation preventing cyclists from doing so while riding their bikes.

The Guardian Bike Blog pointed out earlier this year, however, that cyclists using a mobile phone while riding can be prosecuted for careless and inconsiderate cycling, which carries a maximum £1,000 fine.

It's an issue that divides high-profile cyclists here - CTC President, the broadcaster Jon Snow, says that using a mobile while cycling should be banned; Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, says it should be left to the individual cyclist.

As reported on road.cc last month, the RAC Report on Motoring 2011 has highlighted driver distraction through the use of hand-held devices as a particular safety concern, with half of drivers surveyed aged 18-24 admitting using a mobile phone while driving.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.