Why the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure is probably right

Why the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure is probably right

In the Netherlands not only the issue of using your phone while driving a car is raised but also of doing this while cycling. The Minister of Infrastructure wants to ban phone use while cycling. Read here why we are not as good at multitasking as we think.

It is estimated that there are 22.8 million bicycles in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, there are around 17 million inhabitants. This means that the average Dutchman owns 1.3 bike. Many dangers come with taking part in traffic, whether as a cyclist, a driver, or a pedestrian. That’s why, in our technological age, many worries have been raised regarding the risks of using your cellphone while driving a car. But what about cycling and using your phone at the same time? Lately there has been much discussion in the Netherlands about this topic. In fact, the situation has gotten so bad that, as far as the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure is concerned, using your phone while on your bike will be forbidden from July 1st, 2019. The minister said: “We think we can multitask, but we can’t.”

There is truth in what the minister says. Multitasking means performing two or more cognitive tasks simultaneously and actively. A usual consequence of multitasking is that at least one out of the tasks will be performed less well than would be the case if the task was performed alone. It is hypothesized that, because of the electronic age that we’re living in, we are getting better at multitasking. Still, the use of electronic devices, especially our phones, during driving has become a very important cause of traffic accidents over the last years.

Most people from the Netherlands learn to ride a bike from a young age (around the age of 3). You could argue that it is rare to find a Dutch person – infants, elderly, and handicapped excluded – that cannot ride a bike. Subsequently, you could also state that riding a bicycle, a very much trained, automatic behavior, could easily be combined with handling your phone. As a matter of fact, scientific research by the Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Verkeersveiligheid (SWOV) and the Delft University of Technology could not find proof that using your phone while riding a bike causes more accidents than not doing so. This was the case for both listening to music and calling someone. Indeed, there is a lack of reports of mobile phone use as a cause in cycling accident statistics. However, what was added to the results of this study was the fact that the cyclists also showed compensatory behavior while using their phone. For example, they slowed down their driving speed.This can only indicate some limit in our capacity to handle both the stimulation that a cyclist receives from its phone and the stimulation from the surrounding traffic environment.

You’re probably wondering what’s the problem if phone use does not cause more accidents and if cyclists compensate for their behavior. Perhaps listening to music and calling someone are not the kinds of behavior that should cause most worry while cycling. Indeed, the most dangerous behavior cyclists show is while texting. Cyclists start swerving more while they text and thus need more room. They also move further away from the roadside. Furthermore, they slow down as much as 3 km/h. It is also speculated that the lack of mobile phone use as a major contributory factor in accident statistics perhaps exists because people who have had an accident are reluctant to say that their mobile phone use caused this.

So, is the Dutch Minister of Infrastructure right to forbid cell phone use while cycling? The answer is probably yes. The human brain simply is not capable of safely performing both tasks simultaneously without having to compensate or show dangerous behavior. Another question is whether this compensatory behavior is a bad thing. All in all, cyclists should, not only for their own safety but also for the safety of others, just focus their attention on cycling – at least, from July 1st, 2019.