By John Marsh, Editor & Publisher

These I believe to be true:

Roadies hate – hate! – seeing a driver with their mobile phone glued to their ear or, even worse, holding it in front of them as they text while driving.

Roadies love – love! – our bike computers, GPS and other electronic devices. These ever-advancing tools help us measure, gauge performance, map and explore the roads we ride.

But are our cycling gadgets becoming a bane to road safety, much like mobile phones? Is distracted riding a danger similar to distracted driving?

A couple of RBR readers think so. And so do I.

Reader Neal Bowser wrote us a while back with an illuminating story from a ride about a squirrely fellow rider, and last week I was exchanging emails with Premium Member David Stihler, who shared a comment about his Garmin Varia radar unit that really caught my attention.

First, the Riding Story

“What brought this to mind was an incident that I observed while riding on BRAG (Bike Ride Across Georgia) this year,” Neal began. “I watched as a friend fiddled with his GPS unit while riding down a lonely country road. His attention was only diverted (according to him) for a few seconds, yet he came dangerously close to running off the side of the road and down into a deep ditch. Later, he also slowed down at an inappropriate and unexpected time and created yet another ‘almost’ incident! No one followed him after that.”

It’s bad enough simply dealing with overall traffic, uptight and distracted drivers on our rides.

“We inadvertently add to the problem,” Neal continued, “by using a plethora of sophisticated electronic devices that, by their nature, have the potential to divert our concentration away from our primary responsibility; that is, riding in a safe manner.”

Now, the Garmin Varia Comment

"I own a Garmin Varia Bike Radar and also use a mirror," wrote David, "and even though the radar is great it insulates you from the 2,000-pound vehicle approaching from behind. So, I prefer my mirror as it keeps me present and doesn't insulate me from the road."

Just for the record, the average car weighs closer to 4,000 pounds, but that's not the point. What struck me about David's comment was his use of the word "insulates." How could a device that warns you of approaching traffic do that?, I asked him.

"I think it dulls your natural senses and lulls you into relying on the beep and dots," David replied. "I love the Varia; but I soon realized I wasn't listening like I normally do. I was listening for the beep instead of the surroundings.

"On country roads it's great, as it can detect a car before you can and on fast descents when you are gazing down you will see a car approaching on the Garmin when the wind makes it impossible to hear. But, at least for me, there is a real danger in dropping your awareness of your surroundings. So, I love it with the understanding that it's only a helper device."

Strong Statement, Don't You Think?

I still can't shake the paradox of David's statements from my mind. Namely, that a device purpose made to increase safety on the bike can actually lull you into complacency and detract from your natural awareness and focus on your surroundings. That's extraordinary.

So what can roadies do to continue to enjoy our on-board gizmos – but not at the expense of safety?

Follow a set of common-sense guidelines, the same as we do for other activities that we accomplish while riding (like drinking, wiping, blowing, etc.). Here’s a starter list. (Please add your own suggestions, and thoughts on the subject, in the Comments below the Newsletter version of this article.)

Common Sense Guidelines For On-Bike Tech

Bike computers and GPS units should only be set (or reset) while stopped.  Choosing the route, clearing your last ride’s data, etc., should become just another pre-ride (or post-ride) routine so you don’t have to mess with it when you’re rolling.

Never touch or look at your device while in a pace line.  This is the same rule we follow when drinking, blowing, eating, and such. And it’s even more important when it comes to an electronic device; it only takes a split-second distraction to make you veer off course, touch another wheel, not see a rider stand up, etc.

Only glance at your device or scroll to a different screen after first checking around you to make sure there are no other riders or cars nearby.  Keep a safety zone for your sake, and theirs. If you’ve never looked up from checking your device and realized you veered off your line, then you’re in the minority.

Just peek at your device, don’t stare at it.  Learn the screens or display of your device at home, sitting on the couch, so that you know exactly where to look to find the desired info while on a ride. Even then, keep your glances very, very brief.

Only check one piece of information at a time.  Don’t think you need to know your heart rate, the gradient of the climb, and your average speed all at once. Establishing in your mind the ONE thing you’re going to look at when you glance down will help you avoid wandering all over the screen.

Spend your time exploring metrics at home, after the ride.  Many devices allow us to download our data onto websites, into spreadsheets, and email it to friends. If you want to dive deep into your ride metrics, do it from the comfort and safety of home.

As Neal so aptly put it in his email: “We need to retain as many of our senses as possible, and remain alert and responsive.”

Stay focused, my friends.


John Marsh is the editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of "less than podium" talent, he sees himself as RBR's Ringmaster, guiding the real talent (RBR's great coaches, contributors and authors) in bringing our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That's what we're all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John's full bio.

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