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?

Turns out, wearing headphones while cycling is not illegal, though according to a bbc poll 9 out of 10 people thought the practice should be banned – yet about 1 in 6 cyclists admitted to having worn them at some stage. But what’s the safety case? Less than 1% of accidents seen at hospital involve cyclists who were wearing headphones, and there is some evidence that cyclists wearing them hear more ambient traffic noise than car drivers with their windows up and not listening to any music at all, let alone with their stereos on. So to ban cyclists from wearing them on grounds of noise awareness would seem unfair, or we’d have to rip out car stereos and windows (personally, I’m in favour of ripping out the stereos and forcing up the windows of the young Corsa drivers who tear up my road blaring out their music!!! – rant over!)

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!