Is it safe to wear headphones while cycling?

April 11, 2020 Off By Mike I Was

How to assess the benefits and risks of wearing headphones while cycling

Yesterday, while out on my daily exercise, which today was a blast up and down the beautiful Northumberland coastline near my house (sticking to my own advice on cycling during the Covid-19 breakout) I had to pass a cyclist on the road (this is an unusual occurrence for me – normally as a MAMIL it’s me who is being passed!). Anyway, the point is, I shouted out “passing on your right mate” – however, the cyclist, who looked pretty experienced, (either that one of the ‘all the gear, no idea’ crowd!) started to stray across to the right, into my path where I was trying to create some socially-distanced safe space to pass. As there was a car coming from the other direction, I had to fall in behind this guy once again, and try again a few seconds later.

Again, I loudly hailed by fellow road warrior but got no indication or acknowledgement. So, when clear, I pushed past him and saw he was wearing those Apple Air Pods – you know those white antennae like headphones that are all the rage right now. So it got me thinking – if this guy couldn’t hear me (and as a former gunnery officer in the Navy, I can tell you I have a voice that carries haha!), how on earth could he hear traffic noise or be aware of any other hazards that have audible indications (‘fore’ ‘lookout below’ ‘pothole’ etc.)

Is wearing headphones while cycling illegal?

Ever found yourself harbouring the belief that cycling with headphones on is akin to breaking the law? Well, allow me to shatter your misconception. Yes, indeed, wearing headphones whilst pedalling away on your bicycle doesn't carry the weight of illegality. However, the matter isn't as straightforward as it appears. An intriguing aspect emerged in a public poll carried out by the bbc, where it surfaced that a significant majority, i.e., 9 out of 10 people, expressed that riding with headphones on should be prohibited. Meanwhile, an interesting contrast appeared, with approximately 1 in every 6 cyclists confessing to have used headphones while cycling at some point.

The question now turns to the aspect of safety. How dangerous is it really to pedal along to the rhythm of your favourite melody? The facts might surprise you. The instances of accidents wherein the cyclists had headphones on were staggeringly low, which is to say, less than 1% of the total accidents coming to hospitals involved headphone-wearing cyclists. And that's not all. There is mounting evidence suggesting that cyclists with their headphones on are more attuned to the background traffic noise than our friends ensconced in their cars, and this pertains to even those driving in an absolute solitude, with their window panes slid up and no music on, rendering their vehicles into soundproof cabins, let alone the ones humming along to the tunes of their car stereos.

One would argue then, if we are thinking of imposing restrictions based on noise awareness, banning headphones for cyclists seems deeply unfair, unless, of course, we pluck out car stereos and enforce a compulsory upholding of car windows. The thought might strike a funny chord, but consider this: How often has your tranquility been shattered by the loud music blasting out from a speeding Corsa? I would hazard a guess that this occurrence isn’t rare on your street either! (Apologies for the slight diversion - that grievance required some airing!). So, before we reprimand the cyclist riding along, bobbing his head to the beat, perhaps, it’s time to turn our attention to the audible nuisance on four wheels - the irresponsibly loud car stereos!

Should wearing headphones while cycling be banned?

On the flip side, wearing headphones can make a long ride much more bearable, and even enhance performance, but I think we’d all agree that we should still be able to hear road noise, and other audible indications that will help keep us safe.

Sorry mate, didn’t hear you!

Furthermore, banning headphones will have implications for deaf, or hard of hearing, cyclists. I for one suffer from impaired hearing, probably as a result of my Naval service, but am not yet profoundly deaf, thankfully. If my hearing loss does progress, I would like to think I wouldn’t be prevented from doing the things I love, like cycling. There is also evidence that the loss of one sense is often compensated for by another. I expect my sense of smell will evolve to the point of picking up the cake and latte laden breath of my fellow cyclists at a great range, rendering my hearing redundant!

So, my verdict? Wear headphones if you must – but please make sure the volume is at a level where you can still hear traffic noise, pedestrian crossing beeps, bells, warnings and instructions from other cyclists and the chimes of an ice-cream truck!

Later on this year, I will be doing a test between in-ear ‘bud’ type headphones and bone-conduction sets, which appear to offer a more safety-conscious approach, while still giving all the psychological benefits of music on the go! I’ll also be sharing my experience with my Livall BH51M Smart Helmet. It has integrated bluetooth connected speakers – no headphones required – simples!

Be smart – ride safe – stay healthy!