Ask BikePortland: What should I do when I see people using phones while driving?

Ask BikePortland: What should I do when I see people using phones while driving?

Should you say something?
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Funny how things work out some times: A reader emailed me a few hours ago wondering what she should do when she sees people using phones while driving. Then a few minutes ago I read a news story about the exact same situation.

The situation is this: When bicycling, it’s very easy to see inside people’s cars as you ride by. That means people who ride bikes witness an awful lot of people using phones while driving. For anyone that knows the carnage distracted driving accounts for on our streets, this is a disturbing phenomenon. Using a cell phone while driving is both highly dangerous to yourself and those around you, and it also shows blatant disregard of Oregon traffic law. (As an aside, this ease of seeing drivers on cell phones while biking is why I’ve advocated for the police to use bike patrol officers to do cell phone law enforcement stings. So far, they haven’t taken me up on the idea).

Reader Kim I. emailed us wondering what to do (if anything) after witnessing such behavior. Here’s her email:

“I am a daily bike commuter in Portland. Over the last few weeks during my morning or evening commute, I have observed drivers texting on mobile phones as I passed them. It is probably no surprise to you that it evokes anger for me… I am appalled that someone can be so careless. On at least three occasions I have caught the texting drivers’ attention and chided them. Invariably, they smile and blow me off. I find this frustrating (and I feel foolish), yet if I remain a mute witness to this behavior, it is equally frustrating. Is there anything a citizen can do? I wonder if others in the bike community have any suggestions.”

Just an hour or so after reading that email, I came across this story via KOMO News up in Seattle: Police: Driver rams pedestrian for telling her to hang up and drive:

“… a female driver talking on a cellphone intentionally rammed a pedestrian after he signaled for her to hang up and drive Monday afternoon… the victim was crossing Fifth Avenue South and South King Street in the crosswalk around 12:50 p.m. when he indicated to a woman driving a silver Honda Civic that she should hang up her phone… The suspect reacted poorly to being scolded and pulled forward, intentionally ramming the victim with her car, according to the report… The victim told officers the suspect hit him in the knees with her car twice more while laughing and yelling that he wasn’t an officer before driving off.”

So does that answer Kim’s question? Is it better to just stay silent when you see people using phones in their car? I’ve often wondered this myself.

One thing we’ve seen over the years — and what this Seattle incident clearly illustrates — is that trying to communicate with another road user about their behavior is an extremely dicey proposition. It can end up going very well, but it can also end up deteriorating quickly. Emotions rule in these situation and I don’t know of any adults who take kindly to lectures about their behavior from friends and relatives, much less complete strangers.

In the end, I’d urge a compromise between verbal engagement and doing nothing. Perhaps the best thing is to come up with a good hand gesture (not the middle finger) or facial expression that shows your disapproval and gets your point across. Does anyone have other tips? What do you do?

Read more in our Ask BikePortland archives.

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