In Park Slope, police crack down on phone use while riding a bicycle. The problem? It isn’t illegal

The Brooklyn Paper
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Police in Park Slope lead the city in issuing tickets for a law that does not exist.

Officers in the 78th Precinct wrote 151 tickets to cyclists for cellphone use in 2014, according to data released in response to a Freedom of Information request by The Brooklyn Paper, despite the fact that New York State’s text-ban law only applies to motor vehicles. Citing cyclists for an unsafe practice that is nonetheless legal puts an unfair and unlawful burden on them, according to a pro-bike lawyer.

“It means that hundreds of people are paying money they can ill afford,” said Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who frequently litigates on behalf of cyclists. “Many people bike because it costs less than a MetroCard or a car, and here they are getting hit with summonses when they’re not even breaking the law.”

Representatives of the New York Police Department legal bureau did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but a spokeswoman testified at a recent Council hearing that New York’s texting ban technically applies to cyclists.

The language states otherwise: it specifically bans texting by operators of “motor vehicles,” which according to the term-definition section of the overarching motor vehicle statute does not include human-powered vehicles like bicycles.

Nowhere is that distinction more relevant than Park Slope, home to a large density of cyclists and also the precinct in which bikers are most likely to get slapped with a summons for checking their phone while on the move.

The 78th Precinct, which covers Park Slope, Prospect Park, and parts of Prospect Heights and Gowanus, blew its neighbors out of the water in mis-enforcement. The 76th Precinct, which covers Red Hook, wrote one such ticket in 2014, while Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant’s 88th Precinct and Sunset Park’s 72nd Precinct wrote none. The distant runner up in the area is the 84th Precinct, in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown, which issued 15 tickets to bikers for cellphone use in 2014.

The high numbers in Park Slope are most likely the result of a combination of the precinct’s strong support of the mayor’s Vision Zero plan to reduce pedestrian deaths, an initiative that was a cornerstone of the policy of Commanding Officer Michael Ameri and continued by his replacement Captain Frank DiGiacomo. DiGiacomo declined to comment on the legality of texting while biking, but he affirmed his commitment to keeping the roads of Park Slope safe for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

“We like bikes, and we want to keep them here, but we want people to be safe,” he said.

Safety activists in the neighborhood have worked closely with police on Vision Zero initiatives, but have been less than pleased when the focus falls on bikes. One Community Board 6 member and enthusiastic cyclist praised DiGiacomo for his focus on road safety, but questioned if bikes warrant the same amount of concern as reckless drivers.

“The difference between a driver on a cellphone and a biker on a cellphone is a significantly different magnitude,” said Eric McClure, a Park Slope cyclist and Community Board 6 member. “I have a lot of respect for the 78th Precinct, and they do a great job of keeping people safe, but I’d prefer to see them prioritize the behaviors that are most dangerous to a greater number of people.”

Cops citywide cited cyclists 427 times in 2014 for cellphone use, a number that may result from a combination of scant legal training and a misconception that the texting-ban law applies to cyclists, Vaccaro said.

“Police are not trained in motor vehicle law, and there is an unwarranted assumption that traffic laws are so simple that why waste time training about them,” he said. “How much time would it take for the sergeant to get up at morning roll call and say ‘hey guys, there’s an exception when it comes to cyclists’?”

While police continue to ticket cyclists for cellphone use with shaky legal backing, Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island) has been pushing to end the legal limbo with a law that would specifically ban texting while biking. Treyger introduced the legislation last year after he said he saw a biker almost cream a pedestrian while gazing at his screen, and he defended the bill against critics in a recent Council session.

The bill has met with howls of protest from bike activists, who want police to focus their safety initiatives on motorists, or on the very least increase ticketing of already-outlawed dangerous practices like riding the wrong way. Both Vaccaro and McClure acknowledged that texting while biking is a boneheaded move, but the lawyer said legislators need to consider the potential a behavior has to harm people other than the risk-taker himself.

“I know of no incidents of this causing serious injury or death,” Vaccaro said. “Legislation has to be data-driven.”

If you have been ticketed for using your cellphone while riding a bike, did you pay it? Did you fight it? Let us know what happened by contacting Noah Hurowitz at the e-mail below.

Reach reporter Noah Hurowitz at or by calling (718) 260–4505. Follow him on Twitter @noahhurowitz
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

ty from pps says:
its for the children.
April 27, 2015, 5:13 am
Lentol Vagine from Park Slope says:
Typical male -driven society. The phone is a symbolic extension of their manhood.
April 27, 2015, 6:10 am
ty from pps says:
we need more ghost bikes along the way.
April 27, 2015, 6:14 am
Mike from Williamsburg says:
The NYPD is consistently embarrassing. It's hard to believe that City Council wants to add more cops rather than thinning their ranks.

As I always say, the NYPD doesn't do an important job and they don't do it well. This article is just more proof.
April 27, 2015, 7:49 am
Ace from Bensonhurst says:
Meanwhile back in Councilman Mark Treyger's district (which is Coney Island and Bensonhurst) there is a brothel/massage parlor or two on every block of 86th street and 18th, 19th, 20th avenue. It is not the moral issue of prostitution with these, it is forced enslavement (human trafficking) of the woman "working" there.

And perhaps Mr. Treyger is waiting for the next deadly fire before dealing with all the illegally sub- divided apartments and houses in his district.

But, by all means let's put an end to texting while bicycling and continue to ignore the red light running and speeding by automobiles.
April 27, 2015, 8:38 am
Mike from Williamsburg says:
So now the people (or person) mocking Tal stoops to homophobic tropes? smh
April 27, 2015, 8:43 am
FS says:
Reynoso said it wasn't happening, but it is.
April 27, 2015, 8:47 am
Parent from Brooklyn says:
The 78th could spend 10 minutes on 5th Avenue and ticket all the car service drivers running reds and making illegal u-turns or not yielding to pedestrians. This is outrageous. What a waste of effort! Meanwhile, drivers do whatever the hell they want. I'm sick of it. Get your precinct in line, Captain DiGiacomo!
April 27, 2015, 8:52 am
Shawna from Park Slope says:
I think there is a general culture of aggressive/selfish behavior on the part of car drivers, pedestrians, and bikers. Every man for himself. In any instance, and regardless of whether you are in a car on a bike or walking, you should be mindful of the other people sharing the road. I don't think texting assists anyone in that process. More and more pedestrians are also texting while crossing the street, not paying attention, and slowing down the progress of traffic in an increasingly crowded and unmanageable neighborhood. I don't think bikers or anyone else should be exempt from practices that are mindful of others.
April 27, 2015, 9:05 am
Lentol Vagine from Park Slope says:
Shawna - why is it "man"? Women matter too! We're not just mothers and sex dolls! We can do it like a man can.
April 27, 2015, 9:22 am
Vernal Magina from Pork Slope says:
have they ticketed Charles Schumer yet?
April 27, 2015, 9:43 am
Neighborhood Guy from Park Slope says:
Double-parking, wildly unnecessary horn-honking, u-turning, speeding, engine idling, failing to yield to pedestrians, running red lights and generally aggressive, impatient, ——-ish driving -- the 78th Precinct could write 1,000 summonses a day on all of the truly dangerous, destructive and illegal motor vehicle activity that takes place within ten blocks of their precinct house.

The cops need to focus on enforcement that really makes a difference. Cell-phone toting cyclists are not hurting and killing New Yorkers, nor are they doing massive amounts of property destruction, nor are they clogging our streets with horn-honking, exhaust-spewing traffic. Motor vehicles are doing all of those destructive things. Not cyclists and pedestrians.

The 78th needs to get its head out of its ass.
April 27, 2015, 10:32 am
Ursula from Downtown says:
The solution is not to minimize the danger presented by texting bicyclists, or even to excuse the latter, but to change the law so that the NYPD complies with it.
April 27, 2015, 11:33 am
Sarah from Carroll Gardens says:
I am very disappointed by the apparent lack of any supervision on the comments. Trashy, offensive, juvenile and moronic. Why isn't someone on staff monitoring this, identifying the IP addresses of the worst offenders, and blocking them from the site? Maybe then you might be able to raise your ad rates or something.
April 27, 2015, 12:32 pm
Gigi says:
If there weren't those one or two people commenting under multiple names there wouldn't be any soap opera like bs on the Brooklyn Paper. Chances are pretty good that the unseen hand of the moderator is the very same as that of the prolific commenter. Beats working.
April 27, 2015, 1:04 pm
Sarah from Carroll Gardens says:
Well I've had it!
My hands are killing me from pearl clutching.
April 27, 2015, 1:05 pm
bkmanhatman from nubrucklyn says:
Don't you know people that ticketing cyclist pays for their lawsuits and pensions -There's no money in fighting crime.
April 27, 2015, 1:38 pm
GladIDontLiveThereAnymore from Park Slope says:
Just remember the 78th is really Brooklyn 99. Just ask
Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg)
April 27, 2015, 1:49 pm
Common Cents from Crown Heights says:
Shawna your comment makes too much sense for this digital rag. Remember cars are evil, driven by devils and every accident is the fault of the driver. Let's say a texting cyclist (not breaking the law) gets into an accident with a car whose driver wasn't breaking any laws either; it's the drivers fault. Why? Because the cyclist ends up in the hospital and you can't very well blame the "victim".
April 27, 2015, 1:55 pm
Mario from Nazereth says:
Why is it the driver's fault? Because were not operating their vehicle in a manner acquiescent to driving conditions. If you are operating a motor vehicle in a city then you must be prepared to quickly stop in response to the actions of your fellow human beings, for bicyclists, pedestrians, and other vehicles.

A speed limit is just that, a limit not a suggestion.
April 27, 2015, 2:43 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
First of all, cut the impersonations on whoever is doing them and especially since I wasn't even here this morning being so busy with so many errands. Anyway, I feel that the same texting while in motion laws should apply to cyclists as well. This creates numerous distractions and does place them into harm's way. Text messages can wait. Just because you don't respond right away doesn't mean that you don't care or have anything to say. Why should just those who drive be held for doing this but not any other groups? My guess is most likely the claim that anyone who drives must always be the bad guy no matter what. On a side note, I was thanked for talking about distracted pedestrians when commenting on an online article for NY Times Magazine in claiming that they should be held accountable as well as should cyclists. Of course groups such as Streetsblog and Transportation Alternatives will make sure that never happens.
April 27, 2015, 3:28 pm
60mph from School zone says:
Yes because every accident involving a car is due to speed. A speed limit is not a limit, it's a law. Just like jay walking, crossing outside the crosswalk. And by the way speeding isn't even in the top 5 reasons for accidents in NYC and Vision Sero does nothing to address the top 3.
April 27, 2015, 3:29 pm
Ken from Greenpoint says:
the more tickets you give less bikers will be....
April 27, 2015, 3:54 pm
ChickenUnderwear from park slope says:
low hanging fruit
April 27, 2015, 4:12 pm
Two Legs from Park Slope says:
As someone who sees clueless bicycle-riding jagholes blowing though red lights directly in front of cars and pedestrians (both of whom who have the right of way on green, idiots), riding like lunatics on sidewalks and otherwise behaving like they own the streets because they're so righteously reducing their carbon footprints -- while acting like arrogant clowns -- I only WISH yakking on your mobile while tooling around on your fat-wheeled hipster-doofus bike was illegal. Man oh man, and I thought San Francisco was the capital of entitlement and self-centered, passive-aggressive, pseudo-groovy nonsense. NYC has that place beat by a mile.
April 28, 2015, 10:31 am
LN says:
My pedestrianism is morally superior to bicyclism any way you slice it. The end. Protect pedestrians, we are the most vulnerable and the most important to shield from the ——ry of bikes and other vehicles.
April 28, 2015, 12:50 pm
Jimmy from Flatbush says:
The indignant whining you hear whenever bicycling is mentioned is just absurd. When drivers (regularly) kill, it's basically the sound of crickets. Chirp. Chirp.

In New York City, 132 pedestrians (plus another 20 bicyclists) were killed by motorists in 2014. This was an improvement over the 180 pedestrians killed in 2013.

That's just deaths. Drivers injured 14,922 pedestrians and cyclists last year, according to NYPD. That's FORTY-ONE pedestrian/cyclist injuries PER DAY by motorists.

But, yes... Oh lord yes! Let's spend limited city resources on the "lunatic" cyclists acting like "arrogant clowns." That will make our city safer!

Stop worrying about your perceptions and biases... and start worrying about the roadway users that are ACTUALLY causing harm.
April 28, 2015, 3:27 pm
Me from Bay Ridge says:
The difference is that cars are much more visible than bikes and can be avoided more easily. Bicycles come out of nowhere (seemingly) and are often on the sidewalk. Of course more people are killed by cars.There are a lot more of them on the road.
April 28, 2015, 3:38 pm
Jimmy from Flatbush says:
No, Me from Bay Ridge.

The difference is that drivers in cars KILL PEOPLE. And those same cars "seemingly" come out of nowhere when they crush people too.
April 28, 2015, 4:10 pm
Me from Bay Ridge says:
People have been hit and killed by bicycles also.
April 28, 2015, 7:54 pm
jay from nyc says:
Ticket them all and let a judge sort em out.
April 28, 2015, 8:18 pm
Jimmy from Flatbush says:
How many, Me? How many? I believe the number is somewhere around 4 in the last decade.

Again -- there are limited resources, you choose manner in which those resources can best increase safety. You are taking great effort to avoid admitting what that is. I believe flower pots accidentally pushed out windows kill more people than cyclists... probably should assign some police to that detail, right?
April 28, 2015, 8:52 pm
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Jimmy, even if what you say about motorists in giving accidents is true, that still isn't a reason let alone an excuse for you and your fellow cyclists to be flouting the laws yourselves.
April 29, 2015, 4:20 pm
Jimmy from Flatbush says:
I shouldn't even bother with this... but...

Tal, your comment doesn't follow from mine. It's illogical and ridiculous. Saying the city (and the NYPD) should be focusing their efforts and limited resources on the most deadly street users says absolutely nothing about cyclists "flouting the law."

When someone isn't being killed by a motorist every other day and far far fewer than 41 more are being injured by motorists, then AND ONLY THEN will it be appropriate to spend resources on cyclists. Similarly, if you want a motorist example, it's inappropriate to ticket drivers for failure to signal a turn when there are dozens more right next to him driving at dangerous speeds and pushing through pedestrians at crosswalks.

Now go back to flouting in your mom's basement.
April 30, 2015, 10:01 am
Tal Barzilai from Pleasantville, NY says:
Jimmy, nowhere did I say that I condone or turn a blind eye to motorists that flout the law considering that I follow them a lot when I drive. Also, I didn't say that there should be less enforcement on that either. However, that still doesn't give you and your group a reason to flout the laws yourselves just because you give less accidents. I can almost equate this to what the anti-Israel crowd I encounter on the NY Times are saying in that the IDF kills more and practically ignores what Hamas does even though they are the ones labeled as a terrorist organization by the US State Department. My point is to cut the double standards. You bike zealots have to learn that two wrongs don't make a right when it comes to following the rules. By your logic it's wrong for the police to go after someone who committed a misdemeanor because it's not as major as a felony, because I know that city speaker will agree with you on that. On a side note, cut the personal attacks, because I find that to be both childish and unprofessional when it comes to debates.
April 30, 2015, 3:11 pm
DF says:
Hilarious to see these pseudo progressive pols rally behind the Trans Alt agenda. Nyc bicyclist are some if the worst offenders I've ever seen in terms of sense of entitlement and rule breaking. I agree with Bratton on this one. Make tougher laws, don't ease them up. Bicyclists in NY do not deserve to be made less accountable for dangerous behavior.
May 6, 2015, 5:32 pm

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