Earphones on cyclists: Yea or Nay?

Can you carry a tune?

by Sam Walker   July 25, 2014  

49 years ago today Dylan went electric. He was booed, notoriously, by folk aficionados who weren't quite ready to be yanked out of the accoustic age. It isn't clear if they were Luddites, or Peter Paul & Mary fans who had bought tickets to the wrong concert and were confused if that was his voice or the feedback.

It seems an appropriate day to do this short quiz:
When is music not a distraction?

A. When in control of any vehicle heavier than a bicycle

B. If a surgeon, performing an operation

C. Those times you have a baton in your hand and are quite dressed up

My point being, why are cyclists singled out? What makes us so uniquely unqualified at multitasking that we can't handle Handel and handlebars at the same time? Why should we be condemned to have to listen to the unlovely and often not particularly helpful sharps and flats of traffic?

I ride a bike. I listen to music. Frequently I do both at the same time. This makes me, in the eyes of many, mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

Am I? Are you? Answers on a postcard.

Road.cc doesn't do polls, so I've put one up here. You don't need to register to vote.

68 user comments

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Here's a list of my favourite senses. Hearing doesn't make the top six.


I see if I want comments to go into the 4 figures I'm going to have to give something away. How about a CD? I've got a rare copy of Dylan's Street Legal with the zombie on the cover, representing the changing of the guards in the song of the same name: that's right, he predicted the zombie apocalypse back in the late 70s.

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
29th July 2014 - 22:23


I think there are conditions where headphones do not detract from riding, but there are equally times where it does. I think you have the right to wear headphones, but with that right comes a responsibility to pay more attention....chances are that if you do take this responsibility seriously you'll be too busy concentrating to appreciate your music....and so it goes.

I ride to work on a canal path which is quite narrow. If I can't hear people travelling under the bridges or ringing a bell it impairs my ability to make a good judgement. Wear headphones, but I guess if you are asking the question you know that you are less in touch with your surroundings and potentially vulnerable.

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1620 posts]
29th July 2014 - 23:08


I'm not asking the question in the sense of "Should I personally be doing this?", as that's been answered to my satisfaction long ago. I'm asking because I think there is a kneejerk reaction (exemplified to an extreme in some of the initial comments here – I've even had some framed). I would like for people to examine exactly why they have a problem with this. To lift a popular idiom from the never-ending helmet debate, I'm trying to make the case that it isn't a no-brainer.

While I am fully in the camp that you shouldn't ride outside your safety comfort zone, so far I have seen no convincing case to condemn the practice.

Yes, hearing is one of the great senses; I'm so glad evolution threw it into the mix. No, it isn't necessary to concentrate all of it on the din of traffic for safe riding, at least in my experience, which would appear to be supported by the lack of research and gruesome stats which would at least lend weight to the prosecution's case.

I hate for this to sound like an exclusive club or something, but those of us who do this will know what I'm talking about: When you're riding, particularly (especially) in traffic, listening to a favourite tune can have the effect of making your eyes seem like laser beams


as you constantly scan for possible trouble, and eyes are much better at recognising real trouble than ears. It doesn't completely block ambient noise (you can still hear stuff! Probably more than most motorists can) but does help hush all the annoying and frankly unnecessary auditory clutter which bombards us. And it just feels great; music is a well known mood enhancer, after all. As I've written elsewhere it can help calm road rage, or better yet, stop it from rearing its ugly head. I'm not at all stressed when I cycle in the city. How many people can say that?

PS. Polls are still open

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
30th July 2014 - 5:38


Sit at the back and be quiet wrote:
Forget what lorry drivers, car drivers, deaf drivers/ riders are doing. It's up to each of us to take responsibility for our own safety. I would recommend not using headphones (see my earlier post), if there is a cycle path / lane - use it, make sure you can be easily seen (lights, reflective gear etc) wear as much protective gear as you can cope with and most importantly don't rely on other road users common sense - they often don't have any. Your safety is your responsibility don't rely on other peoples fast reactions or anticipation. Remember in the Highway Code it tells us to observe, indicate THEN manoeuvre. It really is that obvious, but the number of 2 and 4 + wheeled road users that I see doing stupid things that put themselves or others in danger defies belief.

At last a like mind with regard to safety and who is responsible for your safety.
Remember a flashing indicator is just that an indication of what the driver MIGHT be about to do.

posted by sodit [84 posts]
30th July 2014 - 11:00


Sit at the back and be quiet wrote:
It's up to each of us to take responsibility for our own safety

Which is why the vast majority of people decide not to cycle at all. That's kind of the problem.

We live in a society, we aren't in a state of nature, we pretty much _have_ to expect others to take at least some measure of responsibility for our safety, its not possible to function otherwise.

As for 'use a cycle path/lane when available' - dubious advice, such paths can be dangerous (the constant giveway at every hidden driveway or side road or the various obsticles you can crash into, for on-pavement cycle paths, and the cycle lanes in door zones on the road), and if not, simply so slow as to be pointless.

The only time I've been hit by a car is because I made the mistake of following the on-road cycle lane, which took me right across the mouth of a side road, when I would have been better taking the lane thus preventing the misjudged overtake/sideswipe manueuver.

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [1022 posts]
30th July 2014 - 12:53


I don't often listen to music while riding, but there are occasions when I do and think to myself, "y'know, I'd rather actually be hit by something once in a blue moon than feel like I'm going to be hit every other second". Noise pollution is one of the most unpleasant factors about riding in close proximity with motor vehicles, and when you're not IN a motor vehicle, you don't have a wall of glass/steel/radio/etc. in which to shut if off.

I tend not to listen to it in when cycling into somewhere like central London, as I'm having to make decisions every other second and I just find it too stressful to concentrate on music as well. However, when I'm out on the open road, or chugging around Richmond Park, I'm generally much happier doing it, as my decision set if pretty much down to 'go forwards in a straight line', and if I DO get hit (which feels a lot less likely out of the chaos), I feel like there's very little I could do about it anyway. The music wouldn't influence my decision making as there were pretty much no decisions to make anyway.

The 'headphone debate' had been employed by politicians to indirectly re-enforce the notion that cyclists must treat themselves - and expect to be treated - as prey, and that's just fine; which shifts responsibility of the said politicians away from having to create environments in which one CAN ride a bike without fear of death if one makes the slightest mistake. No doubt cyclists would also be encouraged to evolve eyes on the side of the heads rather than the traditional forward-facing set-up if at all possible.

posted by Quince [378 posts]
31st July 2014 - 9:49


When i'm in the UK and riding to the office I don't use headphones. In the summer, when I'm riding around the French countryside I do. The difference is that I can ride for couple of hours out here in France and only be passed by a handful of cars - almost all of which are very respectful to cyclists and it's not like there isn't enough room to pass on these empty country roads. I realise I'm taking an unnecessary risk, but that's my choice and my responsibility.

posted by LinusLarrabee [117 posts]
31st July 2014 - 10:22


when I ride I like to listen to the larks and lapwings and curlews on the moors, the swish of my tyres on a wet road, the clunk of a gear change, sheep baaing, cows mooing, the clip clop of horses coming back from the gallops, the wind in the trees, water rushing over rocks, a farmer shouting instructions to a sheepdog, or where the rider I just caught up with or got caught up by is headed and where they've come from. Wearing earphones would be like wearing a blindfold to me.

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posted by Northernbike [220 posts]
31st July 2014 - 20:22


Why are people comparing lorries/cars and bikes?

You're a lot more protected in one then on your bike. Also, you don't have mirrors on your bike you can glance into, which is a massive part of driving. If there was a way of fitting a little one somewhere on a road bike without it looking stupid, then I probably would in all honesty.
My head hardly stops moving on the bike anyway though, that probably stems from having generations of motorcyclists in the family I think, not everybody is that aware of their surroundings, some people not at all.

posted by J90 [256 posts]
31st July 2014 - 23:00


Northernbike – What an evocative soundtrack; a fine addition to the "nay" column. When I cycle in the city I have nothing so poetic to look forward to, so I much prefer my chosen playlist. (Quince's first paragraph in his post slightly upthread also resonates with me.) The countryside where I live is usually friendlier on the ears, but still, riding through it every day as I do, I'll take the blindfold.

Already live with sheep right outside my windows half the year, so I'm not missing much there. Am always on one singlespeed or another; no pleasantly clunky gear changes (are the modern ones so clunky? I thought that had been ironed out in the lab). The cows I can smell, which fills my senses quite enough. Larks & lapwings & curlews & water rushing over rocks sounds awfully nice I'll grant you; there is a dearth of those on my regular rounds.

The farmers are usually in their tractor cabs listening to music of their own; the local shepherd, on his loud dune buggy. Those times I pass another cyclist, it's easy enough to turn down the volume or remove an earpiece to be ready for any social interaction should it be offered between the grunts which are the typical conversational fare amongst the hills.

Soothing a balm as 'natural' noises can be on the soul, a daily diet of it isn't necessarily more uplifting than the vast library of human expression piped through that skinny cord.

As I type this I'm looking forward to the Far East Sussex night I'm about to dive into on my bike. At some point I will, however, remove my 'phones just to soak up the sound of peaceful silence.

~ @jollygoodthen

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
1st August 2014 - 3:03


I've been commuting on my bike for years, and have found the best way to stay safe is to pretend that everyone wants to kill me. They're not going to go out of their way to do it, because they're people and therefore inherently lazy, but if they see an opportunity they'll take it- cars will pull out in front of me, passengers will open their doors at exactly the right/wrong moment, pedestrians will step out in front of me etc. I've found this mindset remarkably accurate for predicting people's behaviour, and so applying this logic to the earphone debate I ask myself "would I wear earphones knowing that everybody wants to kill me?". The answer of course is "no way".

posted by davidmcw [7 posts]
1st August 2014 - 18:36


If you ride thinking (or even pretending) everybody wants to kill you, you're braver than I am; I'd never get on a bike in the first place if I thought the road was so dangerous.


An ear on the traffic

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
1st August 2014 - 21:05


No, No, No, No. How can we ever condemn drivers for using phones, etc and being distracted and then even consider it Ok for us. Hypocritical springs to mind. We set our standards as though we would like from others. Laughing Laughing Laughing Laughing Laughing

posted by joolzkite [8 posts]
4th August 2014 - 8:09


joolzkite wrote:
No, No, No, No. How can we ever condemn drivers for using phones, etc and being distracted and then even consider it Ok for us. Hypocritical springs to mind. We set our standards as though we would like from others. Laughing Laughing Laughing Laughing Laughing

Are you trolling or being sarcastic?

posted by jacknorell [920 posts]
4th August 2014 - 9:34


This is an easy one.

Hell no. Have you got a death wish?


posted by HalfWheeler [313 posts]
4th August 2014 - 13:37


Riding with headphones on makes no difference whatsoever to safety....when you are on a turbo trainer.

On the road I want to know as much as possible about what's going on around me.

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posted by DaveE128 [238 posts]
5th August 2014 - 13:23


The voting continues with the Nays now building their lead. I could rig the poll but Jimmy Carter would come round and shame me.

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
5th August 2014 - 13:37


I'm not sure it matters. I very rarely wear headphones on a bike but when I have, I can still hear cars coming up behind me. When I don't wear headphones, I'm regularly surprised by cyclists overtaking me.

Of course to be fair, if they ban headphones on bikes they must also ban music in motor vehicles and make it illegal to drive without all windows fully open. And introduce mandatory ear holes in motorcycle helmets.

posted by ollieclark [19 posts]
5th August 2014 - 15:21


All cyclists should be forced to sing loudly and continuously thus negating the need for headphones, providing free, low-tech entertainment for themselves with the additional benefit of an audible warning to those around them. Silly

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posted by 3wheelsgood [61 posts]
6th August 2014 - 12:30


No way!...for all of the reasons in the other posts. Darwin Award behavior.


posted by Shades [272 posts]
6th August 2014 - 15:16


In my view using headphones is unwise on a bike.
I also don't like motorists wearing headphones.

As it happens I usually drive my car with the window open in busy traffic so that I can hear what is going on around me. I don't think it is necessary, but I like to.

Sirens in the distance, a high revving engine, the whizz of another bike coming up behind me, they're all noises I would like to hear to keep me fully aware.

But as with helmets, it should be down to the individual cyclist to decide.


posted by JamesE279 [20 posts]
6th August 2014 - 15:50


Nay Waiting

'Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you'

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posted by livestrongnick [2197 posts]
6th August 2014 - 16:24


Absolute Nay! The comparison is flawed as the surgeon doesnt need to hear his surroundings to avoid danger to himself, neither does a conductor and an ice cream van is hardly playing his music loud enough nor for a prolongedperiod of time to be distracting to the traffic.

But hey, if you want to rob yourself of your important senses in an already toxic environment (traffic), you go just ahead! Please make sure to carry your organ donor card with you, thx =)

Hells500 Grey Stripe / Canyon Ultimate CF SLX 8.0 Di2

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posted by bici1977 [40 posts]
9th August 2014 - 7:39


Shades: "Darwin Award behavior."

Here's one I made earlier.

bici1977: "...hey, if you want to rob yourself of your important senses in an already toxic environment (traffic), you go just ahead! Please make sure to carry your organ donor card with you, thx =)"

You're welcome to your opinion – that is, after all, what I'm asking for here – but if you're going to show concern for my health (presumably you'd like me to keep my organs?), kindly don't ruin the effect by anticipating my status as a future cadaver open for business.

view back of card

As I replied upthread, why so ominous? Is there evidence that earphones cause a statistically significant (or even any) portion of cyclist injuries?

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
9th August 2014 - 8:21


Fair point, and yes, I dont wish harm to anyone or the author Wink

Anyhow, it has nothing to do with evidence if earphones cause more cycling injuries or not. The point is, we as cyclists, want to be and are full members of traffic and want to be respected as such. That goes either way. The same way we dont accept a driver texting while steering a car, because it is a distraction, we should be aware what happens around us and use common sense. The point is not what you are listening to - for all we know you could be listening to the mating call of bull frogs or whitew noise - but that you are impairing one of you senses when wearing headphones on a bike. Hearing is right next after seeing when riding a bike. In my opinion.

Hells500 Grey Stripe / Canyon Ultimate CF SLX 8.0 Di2

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posted by bici1977 [40 posts]
9th August 2014 - 16:44


I understand where you're coming from, but will respectfully disagree that it is necessary for us to be ambassadors in this sense. Respect is earned by good behaviour on the road; if other traffic feels I am not safe or in some way worthy simply because there are cords dangling from my ears, it is not my duty to indulge their prejudice.

Music, or the mating call of bull frogs for that matter, is not a distraction (though I may stand corrected on the latter). It concentrates the mind, in my opinion. I know this is counterintuitive; this is the territory I often inhabit.

There are many other points I could make, but I've already made them here, and here, and here.

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
9th August 2014 - 17:01


' I ask myself "would I wear earphones knowing that everybody wants to kill me?". The answer of course is "no way".'

This makes no sense whatsoever. If everyone wants to kill you, perhaps a bulletproof vest might help. Headphones will make no difference at all.

posted by andyp [1371 posts]
9th August 2014 - 18:13


Everyone seems to have made up their mind already, so at the risk of wasting mine and everyone else's time, my tuppence worth would be...

I have ridden an urban commute for years, always with the ipod on, the incidents and near misses I've had are pretty much always in front of me so I don't see how removing my headphones would have helped. Also even with in ear buds, I can still hear what's going on. In fact I'd leave ear plugs in without music to reduce the traffic noise to a comfortable level.

I really enjoy the audio I listen to while riding, it makes my commute enjoyable, without it I would struggle to motivate to ride to work year round.

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posted by J Montaño [11 posts]
9th August 2014 - 23:16


Ok, first things first. The mating call: http://youtu.be/etHbbL7Z3Aw?t=20s

Secondly, the example of concentrating better when listening to music, again, is flawed. I used to ride BMX and admittingly listened to music whilst doing so - and yes, it helped my riding (a little [I think]). However, that was not in traffic but in dedicated areas such as Skateparks. A far less lethal environment, given you dont have to fear a 40 ton lorry will push you off the road.

My whole point is not that I dont agree that music might help you concentrate, after all, thats why the surgeon probably listens to some tunes when removing an apendix or what not, but that it impairs your second most important sense whilst operating a vehicle in traffic.

And yes, we do all need to be an ambassador for good behaviour! We cannot rely on everyone else doing the first step. Be the change (bah bah) you want to see in the world. It has nothing to do with prejudice, but with setting an example. The same way I dont jaywalk when little children stand next to me at the red lights, or the same way I dont jump red lights eventhough I just want to do a left turn.

And if all else fails, and my argument and points fail to make you see what I mean, surely this will give you the notch in the right direction: http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/#62 Wink

Hells500 Grey Stripe / Canyon Ultimate CF SLX 8.0 Di2

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posted by bici1977 [40 posts]
11th August 2014 - 19:54

1 Like

Good evening, bici1977.

"Ok, first things first. The mating call: http://youtu.be/etHbbL7Z3Aw?t=20s"

I've been wearing earphones while cycling in traffic – the only place I ride – since the 90s, and others have probably been doing it since Walkman days. Your opinion about the importance of hearing (setting aside that I can in fact still hear the outside world - just not with the fidelity you are insisting upon) isn't going to change my mind; nor would I expect to alter the way you or anybody else rides. I only ask that people who think it's dangerous examine why they think this, rather than stick their fingers in their ears and go lalala I can't hear you {because hearing is so important}. Not to point fingers, by the way.

"Be the change you want to see in the world."

I am the change I want to see: a happy, confident cyclist who tries to be considerate to other road users. The change I'd like to see in this case is for people not to get distracted by non-issues when discussing cyclist safety; recall that Boris Johnson tried this on last year.

"And if all else fails, and my argument and points fail to make you see what I mean, surely this will give you the notch in the right direction: [The Rules]"

I prefer these rules, thanks.

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posted by Sam Walker [82 posts]
11th August 2014 - 20:18