When it comes to cycling, riders may have many things that they do to make the ride even more enjoyable. For example, they may use bike paths as much as possible to be closer to nature or not compete with vehicles. They may enjoy decking out their bike with accessories and different paint jobs. And many cyclists like listening to music while they ride.
Generally speaking, cyclists do this for the same reason runners and walkers do it: music makes the trip more enjoyable; it makes training easier, and it combines music with exercise, beefing up the effects of happy hormones.
But is it illegal to ride a bike with headphones? After all, music can be very distracting, skipping or fiddling with your music player or phone requires a hand off the bike handlebars (which is illegal in the US), and many drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians see the blissed-out, oblivious music-loving rider as a danger on the road.
Well, the answer may surprise you.
Where is It Illegal to Ride a Bike With Headphones?
Although it may seem dangerous, there are actually only seven states that regulate headphones: Florida, Rhode Island, California, Delaware, New York, Virginia, and Maryland.
Of these states, only California, Delaware and Maryland prohibit the use of headphones over both ears, although Maryland allows them to be used on bike paths.
In the other states, cyclists are allowed to have a headphone covering one ear, but not the other. The grey state is Pennsylvania where it’s illegal for drivers to wear headphones and that can be extended to cyclists, though it’s not explicitly said.
This means that it is legal, if not a good idea, to wear headphones in the other 43 states. However, you may find yourself being cursed out or at least perceived as being at greater risk of an accident.
Why Is Riding with Headphones Dangerous?
The states that have made riding while listening to headphones illegal (or restricted them at least), argue that the reason they do it is primarily for safety. The reason is that by wearing headphones, one is voluntarily cutting off their ability to hear what’s going on around them (or at least restricting it).
The counterargument, of course, is that people who are deaf are not restricted from riding their bike, but one could argue that people who are deaf are able to compensate for this (having done so for a long period of time) whereas people listening to their headphones are more distracted and less likely to pay attention.
If you think about it, anything that gives cyclists a sensory edge is seen as critically important. When it comes to cars versus bikes, the cars are going to ‘win’ any collision hands-down (if by winning, we mean ‘walking away physically in one piece and largely uninjured’).
When you’re dealing with drivers surrounded by metal and plastic to protect them at higher speeds, it makes sense to have a sensory edge; in other words, to not have anything that would impede any of your ability to sense the world around you.
Of course, this immediately brings up the counterargument that deaf cyclists are allowed on the road and they certainly cannot hear and are still riding safely! There’s also the fact that pedestrians listening to music are at no more risk of damage than pedestrians who aren’t wearing headphones, so why are cyclists being singled out as being too dangerous to listen to music while they bike?
The Controversy of Banning Headphones
If the primary reason for banning headphones is due to cutting off the hearing of the riders, then we must explore how true it is that cyclists need their hearing to ride safely. The sense of hearing is important to many humans as it gives them additional information about their surroundings.
However, in loud cities, it’s not the only sense that matters, and indeed, it’s far from the most important sense. For cyclists, the sense of balance, touch, and body positioning are the most important senses, with sight a distant fourth, meaning that people who are deaf can ride perfectly well.
The problem with relying on hearing while riding is that hearing is unreliable: it does not give a great warning of a vehicle and a worse idea of where it is positioned (how many times have you thought a car was closer or farther than it actually was?) Under quiet conditions, this is a problem; layer it on to a noisy, urban setting and the problem is magnified still further.
Laws that allow headphones to be used in one ear can be seen as even more problematic. This is because many people turn up the music to compensate for only hearing it in one ear which is even more distracting and desensitizes the ears to other noises.
Another issue that surrounds banning headphones is the thought that it is seen as targeting cyclists over drivers (drivers can hide their headphone use easier than cyclists) and that it may discourage people from riding their bikes because they can’t ride the way they want.
This argument has been brought up with the idea of banning headphones in Massachusetts and can be extended elsewhere. There have also been studies done which show that urban cyclists wearing headphones are just as aware of their surroundings as drivers who use the radio.
Finally, there’s a push for recognition that music is used to boost performance, allowing cyclists to go longer, harder, and faster which is beneficial when training and racing.
Is There a Happy Medium?
There are diehards on both sides: People who say that cyclists who use headphones are taking their life in their hands in a dumb way and cyclists who say that hearing isn’t that important anyway. Most cyclists float in the middle and so are looking for a way to listen to music safely.
One of the best ways to do this is to use what are called ‘bone conduction’ headphones. They work by playing the soundwave vibrations on top of your temporal bone. This bone keeps everything that allows you to hear and so it can conduct the soundwaves to your brain to be translated into music, but the eardrum is bypassed.
This means that you can still hear everything around you while listening to your music and so it’s considered safer. Bone conduction headphones are not too expensive though, so it may be worth trying them if you were tempted. (These ones on Amazon have good reviews if you were curious)
Using headphones while cycling is very much a grey area and perfectly highlights the importance of cyclists and drivers all looking out for each other. There are perfectly good arguments on either side for whether cycling with headphones should be allowed or not and it boils down to the cyclist to decide whether to do it (except in the two states where it’s outright prohibited) or not.
It’s worth noting that there is technology on the market to make it safer, but like anything in life, it’s not 100% perfect.
What do you think? Should cycling with headphones be illegal or left alone? Do you bike with headphones or not? And do you find that the attention of yourself or others is impacted by wearing headphones?