Safe Riding

Buzz Without the Beer

Written by  February 28, 2009

It’s the buzz without a beer, and a motorcyclist’s number one cause for fear.
Studies as early as 2006 have consistently shown that automobile drivers talking on a cell phone are as “impaired” as someone driving with a blood alcohol content level of .08—the legal limit for intoxication. Hands-free headsets don’t reduce the danger, either.
The reason cell phone drivers are the equivalent of legally drunk drivers occurs for one obvious and one subtle reason. The obvious reason is that a cell-phone driver is simply distracted, and an estimated 25% of all police-reported accidents are due to in-car distractions. The subtle reason is that a cell-phone driver and his or her phone buddy are actually in two time zones.
Picture someone driving in a car with a friend talking. If a traffic hazard appears, the two friends presumably see the same thing at the same time and both stop talking as the driver responds to the hazard. In other words, the passenger knows to stop the conversation because he sees what’s ahead and is allowing the driver to respond to the hazard as needed.
Now imagine these two friends in a car talking via a cell phone. If a traffic hazard appears, the cell-phone buddy who is not in the car doesn’t see what the driver sees. The driver either has to isolate the cell-phone voice from his other actions needed to respond to the hazard or he’s forced to use precious tenths of a second to say “hold on!” that he needs to spend actually responding to the hazard.
This “buzz without the beer” is the most plausible explanation I can see to account for the increase of accidents involving motorcyclists. I’ll at least assert this for Kansas, where I live, teach motorcycle safety courses, and read the state’s accidents reports.
Since 2003, the number of licensed motorcyclists (in Kansas) only increased 1% but the number of crashes involving motorcyclists increased 29%. Some analysts say motorcycle crashes have increased due to bigger engines or men over 40 riding for the first time in years. While these factors may have some effect on the causes of motorcycle-related accidents, there’s another trend that I believe explains it better.
Early in 2007, the Kansas Department of Transportation and Kansas Highway Patrol listed 350 accidents and 161 injuries in which distraction due a cell phone was listed as a contributing cause. Barely a year later, 1,500 accidents and 700 injuries were recorded where cell phone use was the contributing cause, a 400% increase.
Those cell-phone distracted drivers are a motorcyclist’s nightmare and what I believe accounts for more motorcycle-related accidents. So, when you see someone on a cell phone while you’re riding, you need to take immediate action.
First, be sure to visually scan which autos around you have drivers talking on the phone. When you see one, determine if you can prudently and legally speed up a little, slow down a little, move over into another part of your lane, or even give a little throttle to help protect yourself.
Second, try to avoid riding at rush hour when people are both in a hurry and likely to be on their cell phones.
Cell phones are useful tools in their proper time and place. But when they are in the ear of an automobile driver, they are like a beer without a buzz and are a white flag to you while riding. Be on the lookout and take appropriate action.
By Christopher Hess
MSF Certified Rider Coach and owner of NEET Motorcycle Institute in Lawrence, Kansas