Friday, May 21, 2010

Distraction Control: A Cycle Guide Magazine Editorial

"The issue has become even more important in recent years as advances in mobile technology have made it easier than ever to become momentarily distracted by operating the controls of a cell phone, stereo system, a global positioning unit, or some other device."

The above is excerpted from an AMA press release dated August 6, 2009. It begins: "The AMA Board of Directors adopted an official position on the issue of distracted driving and inattentive vehicle operation at the Board's July 27 meeting."

It shouldn't surprise you to learn that the AMA's position on distracted driving is that they're against it. (Read the entire release here.)

What might surprise you is the number of products aimed at motorcyclists that are just as distracting as any gizmo you'll find in a car, like Bluetooth-enabled helmets that, among other things, let you make and receive cell-phone calls while riding.

Waitwhat? Cell-phone calls? On a motorcycle? While you're riding? Isn't that something motorcyclists have been bitching about car drivers doing for years?

In early 2006 I tested a couple of Bluetooth headsets for IronWorks magazine, which at the time was edited by my CGM partner Dain Gingerelli. I dutifully tried out all the features, including the cell-phone interface, and determined they worked as advertised. Then I phoned Dain. 

"I have a problem with these products," I said. "They do what they're supposed to do, but they're distracting as hell to operate. Talking on the phone while riding is bad enough, but you also have to take one hand off the bar and grope around on the side of your helmet for tiny buttons while listening to a sequence of faint beeps that tell you which button you've just hit."

"Why not just pull over to the side of the road first?" Dain asked.

"If I'm going to do that, I might as well just take the cell phone out of my tank bag and make the call," I said. "That way I wouldn't have to buy the Bluetooth stuff in the first place."

Full disclosure: I have a GPS on my motorcycle, but I've never tried to program it while riding; I use it primarily as a speedometer. I have an iPod, and several sets of helmet speakers I could hook up to it so I could listen to music while I ride. I've done that for short periods, but eventually it was just too distracting from the business of riding and I put it all back on the shelf.

I have a cell phone, too, and I take it with me when I ride, but only for outgoing calls. I ride motorcycles to get away from interruptions, so I don't see the point of inviting them to come along.

But that's just me. I know a lot of riders who have a Radio Shackload of electronic communications devices on their bikes, and these riders all tell me they're perfectly capable of operating their gadgets safely and responsibly while on the move. What bothers me, though, is that this is what just about every car driver who's talking on a cell phone will tell you, too, right up until he rams you from behind at a stoplight or hip-checks you into a guardrail.

I finished up that product evaluation in IronWorks with a caveat, which sums up my feelings about all this, and which ran thus: "But we...have to wonder if that’s something bikers really need, or if it’s just a way for us to become part of the epidemic of inattentive driving."—Jerry Smith


  1. Ten years ago the FIM predicted transportation technology would force motorcycles off major thoroughfares in fifteen years. YMMV.

  2. My Garmin 60CSx is so fiddly to use while in motion. Major distraction.
    To minimize the button pressing, I've set it so that it toggles between only the map screen and the data screen with one button press.
    Anything more than that and I'll pull over to use it.
    It takes a big shift in perception to switch back and forth between the 3D real world and a tiny 2D screen. Too easy to get "sucked in" to the map!

  3. Who says you have to use such things just because they are on your biker? My. Kawasaki has all kinds of info readouts....but when I am in traffic or on a twisty road I don't mess with it. Same as my blackberry...I could check email on the bike, I just don't....

  4. I ride to disconnect from all the electronic hype and I prefer MAPS over GPS. Ride, get lost, find youself. Cell off except for emergencies and the end of the day/ride.

  5. Setting aside cell phones and BT for the moment, GPS audio piped into your helmet is a safety feature, not a distraction. No longer do I have to look at a map or screen to know if I'm headed in the right direction. The GPS prompt "Turn left on Main street" allows me to keep my eyes on the road and signs where they belong.

    As far as music, the interface and placement plays a important role in minimizing distraction. I have to look much farther off the road to adjust my car radio than my bikes Zumo, which is placed high and in my line of sight.

    Placing and taking calls requires some common sense. This is much safer to do on a straight, lightly traveled section of interstate than on a twisty two laned mountain road.

    To me the bottom line is judgement. So of us have it and some of us don't. Legislate all you want, but I suspect people who drive distracted will continute to do so regardless of the activities we ban. I've seen people reading, applying make-up even looking at the folks in the back seat while they drive. It's not the phones that are the problem.

  6. Selena's momMay 23, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    Maturity is what happens after we've noticed our own mortality.