Mention cycling with headphones online and you’re likely to be shot down in flames. It’s a topic that stirs a lot of reaction. But that doesn’t mean donning headphones is automatically flat-out wrong.
Is biking with headphones ever safe? Perhaps use of mirrors or radar devices is a more pro-active approach to road safety than merely not wearing earphones. After all, wind noise virtually eliminates hearing from the rear at moderately fast speeds.
This article will explore the issues around cycling with headphones, hopefully helping you to weigh up any pros and cons that apply to you.
Read more: The best headphones for cycling
Is It Legal To Ride A Bike With Headphones On?
In most of the U.S. and in the UK, it is legal to ride a bike with headphones on. Some European countries and a couple of U.S. states outlaw it altogether.
U.S. State Laws
In the U.S., there are a few state laws relating to use of headphones whilst cycling.
Florida and Rhode Island prohibit headphones altogether, but not because it’s inherently unsafe on a bike, per se. It’s more to do with hearing audible alerts from other vehicles (e.g., sirens), and it applies to cars and trucks as much as bikes.
California, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia allow cyclists an earphone in one ear only, except on off-road trails in Maryland where you can wear two.
Everywhere else in the United States, it’s legal to wear headphones on a bike.
European laws regarding cycling with headphones include:
- Belgium – legal, despite lobbying to have it banned
- France – illegal in any form since 2015
- Germany – legal if it isn’t too loud (unclear how this is policed)
- Italy – one ear only
- Portugal – one ear only
- Spain – illegal in any form
- Sweden – legal in all forms
- UK – legal in all forms
Distinctions aren’t usually made between different types of headphones among these laws, whether they’re in-ear, over-ear, or bone conduction headphones.
Reasons Why It’s Safer NOT To Wear Headphones
The safest way to cycle is to have all of your senses 100% available to you, including your hearing. You can argue cogently against this point because safe cycling is vastly more about sight than hearing. But it’s still fundamentally true.
Below are some valid reasons why it’s safer not to wear headphones.
Not Hearing Nearby Traffic
In towns and cities, especially, traffic comes at you from all directions. You need your senses at full capacity in this kind of environment. Out in the countryside, where junctions and motor vehicles may be infrequent, hearing is almost redundant.
Some modern vehicles pose new threats to cyclists. Electric or hybrid cars are so quiet when they move at low speeds that even pedestrians barely hear them. On a bike, you have less time to react and need all of your hearing to detect such hazards.
Listening to music affects your mood and may prompt some people to ride over-confidently or too fast. In city traffic, this can have dire consequences. Similarly, it’s possible to lose focus and ride carelessly when listening to your favorite tunes.
If you ride on busy trails (aka cycle paths) or commuter roads, chances are other cyclists will pass by closely. They may give you an audible warning as they approach, so you need to stay alert. Headphones cause accidents among cyclists.
Often, the first indication of a bike problem is the sound. It could be your chain grating slightly against a derailleur cage or a tube that blows out. Maybe it’s a puncture. The faster you’re aware of these things, the better.
Scientifically Proven (Or Not)
The perils of cycling with headphones—particularly in-ear headphones—are proven by a 2011 scientific test. Alas, national or regional laws treat all headphones the same, but the test did prove the benefit of riding with one earphone rather than two.
Scientific analysis isn’t always on the anti-headphone side of cycling. In real-world situations, most people who value life will compensate for their lack of hearing by being more visually attentive.
A 2012 study by Dr. Katrina Jungnickel and Dr. Rachel Aldred posits that cyclists wearing headphones are more alert to their surroundings than those without. It’s hard to imagine this is always the case, but it’s an interesting possibility.
Video: The Dangers Of Cycling While Wearing Large Headphones
What About Bone Conducting Headphones? Are They Safe To Ride With?
Bone conducting headphones are often said to be the safest choice of headphone for cyclists. Are they? The short answer is yes, provided you don’t turn the volume up high in urban or busy areas. You need to calibrate.
A potential benefit bone conducting headphones have over the “one-ear” method is that they don’t shut out noise from one side. As long as the volume isn’t extreme, the rider maintains well-balanced hearing from left and right.
How Bone Conducting Headphones Work
Normally, we hear sound through the air. It causes the ear drum in our outer ear to vibrate. The ear drum transmits these vibrations to the three bones in our middle ear, which amplify them and send them on to the cochlea in the inner ear.
Fluid inside the cochlea moves with these vibrations and stimulates auditory receptors in the form of hair cells. This causes a chemical reaction, which in turn triggers electric signals to the brain. The brain interprets the signals.
What bone conducting headphones do is bypass the outer and middle ear. They send vibrations directly to the cochlea through the jawbone. This leaves the ear canal free to receive ambient sounds by the conventional airborne route.
It was famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven who discovered bone conduction as he lost his hearing in older age. He held a wooden conducting baton against the piano with his teeth to send vibrations through the jaw as he played.
Video: How Bone Conduction Helps People To Hear
Are There Advantages To Wearing Headphones When Cycling?
Some cyclists certainly perceive an advantage to wearing headphones when cycling. What possible benefits could there be?
Riding Long Distances
Many people ride long distances primarily to gain aerobic fitness, regardless of speed. This will usually involve at least 2.5 to 3 hours of cycling. Listening to music helps the time to pass quicker on a solo ride, at least if you like music.
Just as musical accompaniment helps to pass time pleasantly, so it also helps to distract cyclists from the “suffering” they feel when riding close to their limit.
Whether it’s a tough HIIT session or a long Strava segment, music can push you through the pain barrier.
Video: Does Listening To Music Improve Cycling Performance?
Inspiration, Motivation, Mood
Many people go cycling as much for their mental health as anything. Listening to music can inject some mood into a ride. It doesn’t have to be high-energy music, either, depending on the type of ride you anticipate. Serenity works.
Probably most of us have talked ourselves out of a ride on numerous occasions and later regretted it. Cycle rides can seem a chore if the weather is miserable or you’re at a low ebb. Usually, they turn out worthwhile if you can leap that first hurdle.
Listening to music inspires people to ride. It might help them train harder. Below are some takeaway tips from this article.
- Use a single in-ear headphone or bone-conducting headphones to retain some hearing (where legal).
- Turn the volume down or remove headphones when riding in busy areas.
- Be wary of riding recklessly in a music-pumped mood.
- Compensate for any lack of hearing by increasing visual awareness.
- Consider using the Garmin Varia bike radar or a mirror to monitor traffic.
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