Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ridden to Distraction

Copenhagen
[image via Amsterdamized]

I have noticed that I feel a greater need to concentrate on the road when riding for transportation than other cyclists I know. This is not a criticism of others, but an admission of my own cognitive deficit: While in many ways I am a multi-tasker, this trait has bypassed anything that involves sensorimotor coordination, and sadly I am one of those people who has a difficult time chewing gum and walking at the same time. I am also a scary-horrible driver, never quite sure when it's safe to merge or at what angle to approach a parking spot.

When it comes to cycling for transportation, I am actually remarkably calm and collected - provided that I pay attention to the task at hand. For that reason I am uncomfortable chatting while navigating traffic, and no doubt appear rude to those who innocently attempt to socialise with me during their commutes. Sometimes another cyclist will pull up and start talking to me when I am on my way somewhere, and all I can think is "Oh my God, you're blocking me in and I need to make a left turn!" - not feeling very friendly at all. Needless to say, talking on the phone or texting is out of the question for me, and I am always stunned to see cyclists who are proficient at this - texting away as they execute complex traffic maneuvers in the most relaxed manner imaginable. Listening to music is something I can do on quiet country roads, but not in busy urban traffic. Drinking coffee on the bike? Forget it. I can sometimes rummage in my front basket for my sunglasses and put them on without stopping, but that is probably the height of my achievements.

Though I believe it is "dangerous" to perform sensory demanding tasks while riding a bike, I am aware that my views on this are influenced by my own inability to do these things safely. So, out of curiosity, what is your distraction threshold when you're cycling in traffic? And if you're also a driver, does it differ from being behind the wheel of a car?

56 comments:

  1. I honestly look at people who are talking on their cell phones while riding and think, how are they doing that? It is a skill set that is far beyond me and my riding confidence. I really relate to this post. When on a bike, I am concentrating on the task at hand.

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  2. For me speed is the biggest attentiveness delimiter.

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  3. I can't talk on a cell phone while riding. I don't try to drink tea while I'm pedalling, though in my youth I tried to imbibe other libations while riding. Let's just say I ruined a couple of bike jerseys that way!

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  4. I eat, talk, put on/take off clothes, and take lots of photos while cycling. Just seems normal and uneventful so far. Law of averages may catch up to me someday. I don't listen to music though, as I have a pretty good soundtrack in my head.

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  5. Oh yes, I forgot to mention photos. Can't take a proper "panda shot" while cycling.

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  6. Being able to perform an auxiliary task while riding is a skill you have to practice to become proficient at, it requires one-handed steering and a different kind of road scanning pattern. Most important is knowing what areas you can ignore while you sacrifice part of your attention, picking moments when you're riding in a straight line simplifies things a lot.

    To an extent this seems to me something every cyclist should practice, at least well enough to be able to grab and drink from a water bottle while riding.

    Personally, the most complicated thing I'll do while riding (or driving) is a very simple phone call, "hi, meet you at location X in 20 minutes, bye," a full conversation becomes too distracting. I'm still very much impressed when I see people who can change out jackets while riding.

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  7. I agree with Ground Round Jim - if I'm riding slowly enough, I can text without crashing - I never do this on roads with any traffic. I also often take photos (of myself or others) while riding - but this always involves a conscious decision, and I don't do it if I feel I'm going to put myself in a situation where I can't control my bike. I can eat or drink or ride with an umbrella, provided I'm on a smooth-ish road/path with no major obstacles.

    I can barely drive 35mph while paying complete attention, I just find the speed stressful, and I feel like I am about at the edge of what I can reasonably respond to, so on the rare occasions when I do drive, I try to have as few distractions going on as possible.

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  8. Velouria,

    You're a hilarious person. I like how fresh and honest you are about yourself.
    Well, my take is the level of comfort in performing extra activities on the bike depends on the kind of road you're in.
    On bike path (segregated of course), I can do anything, provided it is not rush hour. I have taken pictures, filmed (I have a post on my blog with such a video), chatted, I have changed clothes, I can drink, I can eat, I have fed other people sandwiches, put an remove my lights, rummaged countless times in my several bags, I have carried all kinds of junk, I don't have a cell phone but could certainly manage that one too.

    Off path, I don't do any of it as it is just not safe enough to my taste. Not that I don't trust my skills, but I don't trust cars.

    Yet, it is not because you manage these tasks that you never have accidents. I wrote a post the other day on a girl texting on her bike in front of me, who ended up on the hood of a parked car all the while continuing texting as if she was chilling on her bed. Too bad I was not filming at that time...

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  9. I don't use a phone, though I can take pictures while cycling, as well as drink coffee. I also engage in conversations while stopped at lights etc. but not while riding as it is too hard to hear in traffic. When I used to drive a lot I would often be in a phone conversation and found that I had travelled many kilometres without any recollection of what I had passed while talking on the phone, though I never had any accidents or felt at all unsafe doing this. The thought was alarming though and I ultimately stopped using the phone while driving.
    Vicki

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  10. I pretty much have to be standing perfectly still to text. Can't talk on the phone and ride either, and I don't want to practice doing either while riding. I get angry enough seeing people driving cars doing it while texting or talking on the phone. I'm certain that it is equally unsafe to perform those tasks while cycling, at least in areas where protective cycling infrastructure doesn't exist.

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  11. I don't talk or text while riding, but there've been times when I've worn a headset on my cell phone and carried on a conversation while walking; and invariably I'll walk into trouble because my attention is diverted such that my navigation suffers. I've gotten on the wrong trains in DC and walked into the office at work because I was paying more attention to the call than my feet.

    I can imagine that the mistakes would be even more magnified with traffic and the speed of a bicycle added to the equation.

    I read a piece in the Washington Post about the tragically common phenomenon of distracted parents leaving their children in cars and it had a fascinating description about the interaction between our prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and basal ganglia. Where, while our cortex and hippocampus are engaged in a conversation, the basal ganglia is guiding our body through the various physical actions that it has to perform including probably basic navigation; but problems can arise when an overloaded memory can cause the cortex and hippocampus to be subjugated by the basal ganglia.

    Anyway, on a bicycle, I'm fine with conversing with friends because the act of turning a head to speak or making eye contact is conscious enough to force me to balance the conversation with monitoring my position on the road. Wearing an earpiece and having a conversation that doesn't require physical cues? That's a very subtle, though much more sever distraction.

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  12. I've answered my phone, usually just to say "I'm almost there, riding now, see you in a minute" but don't really like to do much other than grab a water bottle and take a drink while I'm in traffic. I end up having to swerve and dodge inattentive drivers too often (for some reason it's been bad around here lately, I've almost been hit a few times in the past few days, and a cyclist was killed in a hit-and-run right along my main commuting route last week).

    When I'm on a low-traffic road (there's one or two in New Jersey) I'll snap photos, check guidebooks, eat, and do whatever, although I still need to keep one hand on the bars. Never got the hang of riding hands-free for more than a few pedal strokes.

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  13. Montrealize--ouch! Reminds me of the last time I multitasked on a bike, probably 50 years ago. I was on my way home from school with my Weekly Reader propped up in my basket, and ran smack into the back of a parked car. Never again.

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  14. Not trying to sound preachy, but when cycling we are navigating a vehicle. We are bound by the laws, rights and responsibilities of an automobile driver. I wave or nod at cyclists I meet and keep going. I drink from my water bottle while cycling only in the country and there are no cars approaching. In the city I stop to drink. There's too much going on. [Wearing headphones while cycling and texting in an automobile is illegal in my state but hard to enforce.]

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  15. I chat with my coworker through my entire commute. I don't think it impairs my ability to ride just as it doesn't interfere with my driving when I have a passenger. That's as far as it goes for me. Texting, cell calls requiring one hand, eating/drinking are beyond me. I don't even think it's a skill set. They are distractions we're always complaining about drivers doing so I don't think a cyclist can do it any better. Maybe I'm wrong. I probably am.

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  16. This is interesting. I began group rides in the 60s. It was always highly verbal. Everybody talked. Philosophy, literature, politics. I remember singing, mostly individuals entertaining the group, but choral singing also. Recitation of poetry, with auditors and response.

    It was probably late 70s before I encountered a fellow cyclist who was basically unable to converse en peloton. I can remember old Italians getting furious with newcomers who were incommunicative. Not speaking while riding was considered extremely strange.

    Needless to say, I miss those days. The explanations based on neurology and brain physiology are not at all satisfying.

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  17. I will occasionally use a blue tooth earpiece in one ear to listen to music. The law here permits headphones in one ear, and I find it no more distracting than listening to the radio while driving. However, I would never talk on the phone (even with the blue tooth headset) or text while riding. On trails I'll grab my water bottle and drink or munch on a Clif bar while riding, but would never do that on streets.

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  18. Of course, lately on my rides it's hard to tell whether my phone is vibrating in my pocket or it's just an earthquake ;-)

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  19. on really cold days, i have to stop pedaling in order to blow my nose.

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  20. Anon 7:36 - Oh I can converse in a peloton and on road rides in general. What I'm talking about is dense urban traffic when one is constantly making turns and maneuvering around something or other.

    Reciting poetry on group rides in the 70s... now there's something to engage the imagination.

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  21. Peppy (the amazing I can haz prefrontal cortex cycling cat)August 23, 2011 at 9:05 PM

    I can purr and cycle at the same time.

    Bet none of you can do that!

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  22. Very nice post. Rarely I may pull over to take a call I'm expecting. Otherwise I engage in no electronics, no music, nothing. Fiddling with those things is unneccessary and risky while riding IMO, and actually I rather like these periods of being disconnected.

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  23. I never talk on a cell phone while riding, and only rarely find myself in a situation where I take a photo while riding. I routinely listen to talk radio while riding because it actually increases my focus on the task at hand. If the radio batteries die, I simply ride with the earphones and no sound.

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  24. Well, I took this camera shot while riding about 10 mph through the woods. Not even blurry!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/7516215@N03/5886180079/

    Chatting with fellow cyclists is a breeze, and doesn't distract me at all. I can talk on the phone while riding, that's at about the limit of my comfort level. Texting? That would certainly exceed my comfort threshold.

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  25. I can chat and bike on side streets but not in heavy traffic. I can't take a panda photo and my beverage is for while I'm stopped at red lights only.

    Peppy - I may not purr but biking with a toddler means I can sing 20 verses of wheels on the bike while cycling.

    Although, it is worth adding that I don't even try to bike with my daughter during rush hour. Too stressful for both of us.

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  26. @ WorldviewCoach

    That one was not hurt at all. She laid there on the car hood and contitued her texting as if spread out on her couch!
    Stuff like this is actually pretty frequent in here, especially among the Bixi folks. I have seen people holding umbrellas, reading books, up to three on one bike (one on the rack, one on the saddle, the cycling one stading on the pedals), kissing side by side, kissing face to face (girl on the boy's lap, feet tied in his back), moving huge furniture (two buddies carrying one couch on two bikes with bungees), seriously, whatever.

    Now all of these are beyond my comfort zone. This is due to the amount of segregated lanes we have. Gives people a sense of security they carry over into actual traffic.

    *Then* it sometimes gets *ouchy* for real...

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  27. On my short(ish) rides to and from work on nice quiet streets I ride hands-free almost all the way, so I get to do lots of foolish stuff, like read my mail, drink coffee, take off my backpack to get out my windbreaker and put it on, but usually I just enjoy the ride.

    I don't like riding with headphones though. I tried it for a couple of months and although I liked to hear the music, I always felt nervous about what might be coming up behind me that I couldn't hear - the hellhounds on my trail, for instance.

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  28. Neurologically, it's already well studied that people cannot multitask as well as we think we can, and talking on a cell phone, texting etc is very distracting (dangerously so)while driving, walking or riding a bike. I used to have a cell phone but could not handle driving and talking on the cell phone at the same time. I remember visiting my sister and taking my niece out for a swim. My sister is a total hovering supermom and could not relax. She kept calling and calling. I was on the freeway home and the phone rang. I managed to pick it up and say I'm driving, home soon! I was surprised how quickly I lost concentration on the road, my speed went up, wasn't paying attention etc.. So I knew, especially with a child in the back that it was not safe to be on the cell phone. Maybe because the conversation is happening with someone who isn't there and taking you out of the situation-eyes seem to glaze over and such.
    I think different parts of the brain are being used, and at least I know I lose a great deal of awareness of what is going on while on the phone. It makes me nervous and very annoyed to see cyclists texting(yes texting!!) while riding and talking on a cell phone while riding. Cyclists should know to be even more safety conscious and aware. Texting and talking on cell phones has been banned in many places, but I still see it all the time.
    However, talking to someone who is present in the car or cycling with you would appear to use yet another part of the brain. I can talk to a passenger and drive, talk to another cyclist while biking and still be aware of my surroundings, not distracted, confused etc..
    I can't do anything while biking. I have to stop to drink water, take a sweater off, blow my nose etc..

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  29. Talk on the phone while riding! I can't even fish it out of my pocket...
    phone while driving a car is even worse, steering wheel, gearshift, phone that's 3....left hand, right hand that's 2....doesn't add up

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  30. Using a mobile while riding is no different to when driving. You're not paying any attention to what is going on around you. I'm only glad my mobile requires two hands to operate, although I am old enough to stick to the proven idea that the world doesn't end if you don't text or answer a call immediately.

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  31. I'm pretty comfortable with most of the things mentioned. I can't ride with earphones in cos I seem to stop concentrating on traffic, can run with them either. I can't text any more either because I need to take my glasses off to see the screen, and so can't keep glancing up to check traffic.

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  32. I can text/talk while cycling but I don't.
    I saw a cyclist cycle blatantly through a red light (a bug bear of mine) while texting.
    It is illegal to use a cell while driving in the UK, and I personally think this should extend to anyone using the road.
    It is not about proficiency, but the percentage of your brain that is not focusing on a potentially dangerous situation.
    I turn my phone off when I cycle for this reason, because I would hate to be distracted and pull out in front of a car/person etc and cause anyone, myself included any harm.

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  33. I do mean to sound preachy. Just pedal. Folks who think they can do more than just pedal are wrong. It is like drunk driving. Some think they can do it, but all are wrong. Same with tired driving and distracted driving. Read the book Traffic for a discussion of dozens of studies supporting my assertions. It is filled with other important insights, too!

    Later!

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  34. After cycling in Amsterdam last year I was amazed to see cyclist amazing skill of cycling & texting or talking, cycling & smoking, riding through traffic with another adult on the back or the front of their bikes, not to mention the piles of shopping carried on front or rear racks.
    I looked on in Awe, however I would not be prepared to try many of these, as I think most are quite risky.
    for me, whilst cycling I have to concentrate on my path ahead, the most I do is flick my cycle computer & sip from my water bottle whilst cycling. However, when driving I am able to do a lot more with confidence.
    In the UK using your phone & eating & fiddling with your Satnav is illegal.

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  35. Cell phones - I feel it's wrong for drivers in cars to be on their phones when driving as it's clear that they stop seeing cyclists then; therefore I don't take or place calls on my bike. Easy enough to pull over a few moments later and call back from a safe spot. The rest of it - easy enough when riding, except for jackets with tight sleeves! must stop rather than risk both arms tied behind my back!

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  36. I would like to second Heather and Randal Putnam. The New York Times may not be a fount of reliable information and analysis (!), but it has presented the case against trying to multi-task while driving very compellingly in its "Driven to Distraction" series:
    http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/technology/series/driven_to_distraction/index.html

    The laws in the US really need updating.

    The same things surely apply to cycling, and even on separated cycle paths there are other cyclists and usually pedestrians to consider.

    I do walk while speaking on the phone, though! But only to people whom I can ask to wait while I cross a difficult intersection, etc.

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  37. As someone who's trained in cognitive neuroscience I agree that most people cannot multi-task while driving as well as they think. For that reason I do support making texting while operating a vehicle illegal. But the thing is that there are also enormous individual differences in these abilities. Some people really are able to do it safely (whereas others just think they can). Was just curious where people stood in terms of self-reported ability.

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  38. MelissatheRagamuffinAugust 24, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    People around here must be much more devoted to the cause of breathing because the only time I've ever seen someone talking on a cell phone on a bike - the person was on the back of a tandem bike. And I live in a college town. During the school year I see college kids doing all kinds of ignorant things on bikes, but I've never seen one talking on the phone.

    Depending on traffic I can chat with another rider while riding my bike. I had a nice talk with a couple of little girls who were riding their bikes to the elementary school while I was riding to work this morning. :)

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  39. I can talk on the phone and ride my bike around. The real only problem is when you have to brake and its hard with one hand if you have hand brakes and when you have to dismount the bicycle. As long as you're in a low traffic area where you can scoot by even if the light is red because no one is there, you should be fine. Or on a bicycle path. Or if you have a curb to rest your leg on or if you have a leg long enough to reach the ground to stop. That's really the only issue is the braking and stopping part where I just say "hold on" or pin it between the chin and shoulder and keep going about the day.

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  40. I've carried on a full on conversation, all the "no ways!", "he didn't", "wow" etc whilst cycling; all done via hands-free, ear piece. I feel as long as my hands are free and able to maintain control of my bike at all times, I'm happy. Occasionally, I've had to answer my phone when I do not have my ear piece on and I can tell you, those few seconds of reaching for my phone, answering and informing the person on the other end I'll "have to call back as I'm on the bike", are nerve-racking. As at anytime, and especially on the 'mean streets' of London, you have to be 100% focused and prepared for a 4x4 mum sticking the nose out too far, a white van man speeding down a very narrow road towards you, dangerously large pot-holes (aka ditches or trenches!) and my favourite, those lovely, shiny grates (extra slippery in the rain, for your pleasure!)

    Often I'll be using my ear piece and the person on the other end has no clue that I'm even cycling. The response is always a lovely "oh well done, had no idea." It's safe and is rather relaxing too.

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  41. I see no need to be in contact with others by phone while I am riding a bike, or driving a car. I certainly wouldn't be texting.

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  42. He hee- I saw a guy riding (on the sidewalk) steering a bike with his elbows while lighting a cigarette AND talking on the phone. I wished I could have gotten a photo...

    I can take panda photos in "open road" situations, but would not be comfortable talking on the phone. My ability to have a conversation varies wildly with the terrain and traffic.

    The nice thing about being on a bike is that it's simple to pullover, stop and answer the phone.

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  43. I'm pretty much the ultimate unitasker. When I'm riding my bike, I'm riding my bike. Full stop. When I'm driving, I might take a drink of coffee or water periodically, but that's pretty much it. I don't even particularly like to do other things while I'm walking down the street.

    I suppose I *could*, as others have suggested, train myself to do other things simultaneously, but that, to me, sort of defeats the purpose. When I'm doing something, I like to be mindful that I'm doing it, not distracting myself with something else.

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  44. "After cycling in Amsterdam last year I was amazed to see cyclist amazing skill of cycling & texting or talking, cycling & smoking, riding through traffic with another adult on the back or the front of their bikes, not to mention the piles of shopping carried on front or rear racks."

    Such behaviours are the markers of greater cycling cultures as safety is at its highest, especially when not confined to segregated lanes, which is not our case yet...

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  45. Why would you want to? Enjoy the ride. The calls can wait.

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  46. Oh gracious, on some of our social rides, the other kiddos can hold a beer in one hand and steer with the other. I can rummage in a basket for a moment, but yeah, at this point that's the height of my skillz. And on night rides, I'm going to isolate myself and not talk to a soul because the streets are horrific and I don't want a pothole to surprise me.

    I can bike and chew bubblegum. And I'm all outta bubblegum.

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  47. I'm very comfortable doing things like taking off a jacket, eating a water ice, adjusting my front brake, drinking coffee, etc., while riding, but I ususally don't do such things if I'm in heavy traffic.

    I'll answer my cell phone on the bike but generally I'll pull over to talk - partly for safety, partly because it is illegal to talk on a cell while moving here ( I think this applies to bicycling. Even if not, it is illegal for car drivers so I should follow that law) and partly due to wind noise and helmet straps int he way.

    I always enjoy bicycling and talking to another rider - it's just a very social activity for me. In heavier traffic I generally can't do this because we would be going single file to share the lane. I often bicycle home most of the way with one or another coworker who also bikes.

    I do notice that I screw up more when I'm bicycling with someone else versus when I'm bicycling alone, even at moments I'm not talking. I think it is a combination fo being more distracted when talking/listneing as well as dealing with the other rider's style/traffic behavior.

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  48. I forgot to add I'm also good at bicycling while experiencing earthquakes :-)

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  49. To Velouria at 8:30 AM: sorry, didn't mean to be pompous in responding to a question different from the one you were asking, but the whole phoning (etc) while driving thing does scare me; I hate it when friends phone while they're driving. (And I don't like it much when people on the phone nearly drive into me!)

    Personally I'm at the extreme end of the spectrum - am very bad indeed at multi-tasking when any kind of physical co-ordination/spatial perception are involved, and one of the things I love about bicycling is that I find it relatively easy to concentrate wholly on being on the bike and the immediate surroundings without getting bored by doing just one thing or stressed by doing something that goes beyond my comfort zone (driving!). So it's relaxing and energizing at the same time, because I never get wholly absorbed in thoughts, so am much more pleasurably conscious of surroundings, the feeling of motion, etc.

    I know that lots of people have an admirable ability to do more than one thing at a time (!), though I can't really, but it does really worry me how inaccurately people perceive the extent of that ability, and how little the laws do to make people aware of that misperception.

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  50. I'll occasionally text while biking but only if I'm on a quiet side street. ;)
    Love the site btw, I was quite happy to find a lady-centric bike blog.

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  51. Huh... never done 90% of that stuff while biking. Why would anyone want to talk on the phone while cycling? Doesn't everyone cycle for the joy of cycling? :) I have to talk on the phone all the dang time. It's the last thing I want to do while on a bike.

    As for drinking... Snapple bottles require too much wrist-twisting to open to be consumed while moving.

    Sometimes I like to talk and ride, but mostly, even though I'm incredibly talkative, I just want to ride. I guess it depends on who is with me, and how much I enjoy their conversational skills. Though I can take a panda photo (remember to put your wrist through the strap, and it's not so bad), I don't love it. They aren't very flattering, really. I can also take photos of other people and views while biking, as I did for rideblog while in Ireland, but I don't love it, either. Photos are almost always better when you can stop and focus and compose them. Almost always. Sometimes a ride photo is just... magic.

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  52. i am quite jealous of people who can hold a drink and ride one-handed (also have seen people carry a box of donuts or eat a bagel). i have no real desire to take clothes on and off while riding. i'd rather just wait till i could stop to do that. about all i do one handed while riding is signalling a turn. i am quite annoyed being stuck behind a person who has suddenly slowed down or can't ride in a straight line because they're looking at their phone/ipod.

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  53. LOL I will chit chat on the mobile, take photos, slurp a coffee, poke at whatever's flying round in my basket, talk, listen to my music, etc on the bike... but pretty much only on Canberra's lovely, wide, dedicated bike paths.

    When I'm actually in traffic - I often switch off the headphones (or switch from music to audio book so I can still hear ambient noise around me), and wouldn't be fiddling about with phones or cameras or coffees at all. Aussie traffic is often quite oblivious to cyclists, and you need to be 100% on the job.

    So, depends on the setting, I guess :) I do tend to ride slower while I'm doing silly stuff, but on the ridiculously gorgeous bike paths here, no one really cares.

    I did see someone the other day riding along in the rain holding an umbrella over themselves, and laughed my head off. I don't think I'd do that all the way to work! ;)

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  54. I am new to bike-commuting, and I barely can get one hand off the handlebars without getting nervous, so there is no way I will be texting. I do live in a college town with lots of people texting on bicycles, and I try not to flinch when they absently roll toward me on the bike path.

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