On average, in Minneapolis, a bicyclist is killed or severely injured every 24 days, and a bicycle crash is reported every 36 hours. There are many issues that cause these crashes, plenty of which are not bicyclists’ fault. However, everyone who uses Minneapolis streets and roadways has a responsibility to ensure the safety of themselves and others. Bicyclists continue to be killed and severely injured in our city despite increases in bike lane infrastructure and a new hands-free law that only applies to motorists. It’s time to start talking about distracted biking before it’s too late.
There are approximately 243 bicycle-vehicle crashes reported per year in Minneapolis. That rate is likely higher because many crashes go unreported. These crashes affect Minneapolis bicyclists of all ages, genders, and races. Further, bicyclists are disproportionately represented among fatalities and severe injuries due to traffic crashes: In Minneapolis, people make 5% of their trips by bicycle, but bicyclists comprise 16% of severe traffic injuries and deaths. In the United States, the total cost of bicycle injuries over a 16-year period was $237 billion for both bike-related injuries and deaths. If Minneapolis’ share is proportionate, bicycle-vehicle crashes cost Minneapolis somewhere in the neighborhood of $18.5 million per year. These injuries and deaths are entirely preventable with proper policy interventions.
There are several issues that cause these crashes, many of which are not bicyclists’ fault. However, a contributing factor that can and should be investigated further is distracted biking. Distracted biking includes auditory distractions (wearing headphones), visual distractions (looking at a cellphone), and tactile distractions (object in hand). Multiple studies show that reduced attention can place bicyclists at greater risk of sustaining an injury. A recent study conducted in Boston found 31.2% of bicyclists were either auditorily, visually, or tactilely distracted. If Minneapolis is at all similar to Boston in this regard, then distracted biking is a major issue here as well. These distractions cause approximately 7 crashes a year in Minneapolis, all of which are preventable.
Weaknesses in Minnesota law
Current policies that could address distracted biking do not do enough. Minnesota law does prohibit bicyclists from carrying any “package, bundle, or article” in a way that prevents cyclists from keeping at least one hand on the handlebars of their bicycle. However, Minnesota’s new hands-free law applies only to motorized vehicles, so cyclists can legally hold and operate their electronic devices while riding. Additionally, the Minnesota law prohibiting drivers from operating a motor vehicle with headphones in both ears does not apply to bicycles, so cyclists can legally ride with headphones in one or both ears.
In 2017, the Minneapolis City Council adopted the Vision Zero Resolution, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries on Minneapolis streets by 2027. Reaching toward that goal, the Minneapolis Department of Public Works completed the Vision Zero Crash Study. This study has provided useful data, including many of the statistics used here. However, additional research can help the city target interventions to reduce traffic deaths and severe injuries.
Study distracted driving’s prevalence
Local lawmakers could address distracted biking by funding a study of its prevalence here in Minneapolis. A study of the prevalence of different types of distracted biking would allow local policymakers to target policy proposals more specifically toward the unique features of distracted biking here. In a phone conversation with the researchers from the Boston study mentioned above, they emphasized how low-cost their study was. They did not apply for any grants, and instead partnered with their local hospital’s level 1 trauma unit for funding, as level 1 trauma units are required by law to conduct research. Minneapolis’ Hennepin Healthcare Level 1 Trauma Center would be the perfect partner. Further, a study like this would go hand in hand with Minneapolis’ Vision Zero initiative.
As the number of cyclists in Minneapolis continues to rise, it is increasingly important to ensure that preventable fatalities and severe injuries do not continue to occur. Appropriating a small amount of funds for a study now can save abundantly down the road in the form of an informed, targeted, local solution to the problem of distracted biking.
Meredith Gingold is a dual JD/MPH student at the University of Minnesota.
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