Like using a helmet or jumping red lights, the issue of wearing headphones while riding is one that divides cyclists, prompting heated discussion from those in favour and those against listening to music while on their bikes whenever the issue is raised.
Now, motorists’ organisation the AA has added its voice to the debate, with its president Edmund King - himself a keen cyclist - calling on the Department for Transport (DfT) to warn cyclists about the dangers of listening to MP3 players while cycling, according to a report in The Sunday Times, which quoted him as saying: “They’re meant to be mobile, but if you are cycling, you need all your senses about you.”
But the cyclist campaign group CTC says that the choice of whether or not to listen to music while riding should be left to the individual and that eyesight was much more important than hearing when it came to awareness of traffic, with a spokesperson commenting: “We encourage deaf people to cycle so we don’t think it’s essential to hear traffic in order to ride. You have to be sensible. The most important thing is that you look around you all the time — especially over your shoulder.”
Meanwhile, road safety campaigner Manpreet Darroch, who launched a campaign earlier this year called Tune Into Traffic warning young pedestrians of the dangers of crossing the road while listening to music, disagrees with King that a change to the law is the solution, claiming “you can legislate until you are blue in the face. On the issue of iPods we just need to raise awareness.”
Darroch’s campaign, which he dreamt up after attending a United Nations conference on road safety as a representative of the UK’s Youth Parliament, was the subject of a documentary in Channnel 4’s Battlefront series earlier this year.
Although it is aimed primarily at pedestrians, he told The Sunday Times that it was equally applicable to those on two wheels, saying: “It’s a serious problem which is only going to get worse as the number of cyclists increases — lots of people are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. People don’t realise how dangerous listening to music is on the roads — whether pedestrian or cyclist. It takes one of your key senses away. People shouldn’t do it.”
Official statistics do not record how many accidents involving cyclists – or pedestrians, for that matter – involve the victim wearing headphones, meaning that much discussion of the issue revolves around hearsay and supposition.
Moreover, even when a cyclist may have been wearing earphones, it is impossible to gauge the extent to which that, rather than other factors, contributed towards the accident.
That problem was clearly highlighted in a coroner’s inquest last year following the death of 17-year-old cyclist Abigail Haythorne, who was killed after she pulled out into the path of an oncoming car that she apparently had not seen.
Police found her iPod switched on with the earphones tucked into the scarf she was wearing, meaning that it was impossible to tell whether or not she had been listening to music at the time of the crash, although PC Mark Howard told the inquest, “'If the earphones were in her ears, it would not have helped her hearing.”
In a written statement to the inquest, her mother said, “It wouldn't surprise me if she had been cycling with her iPod on, she loved listening to music and always had it on.”
This weekend, the Oxfordshire coroner who recorded an accidental death verdict in that case, Nicholas Gardiner, told The Sunday Times: “Frankly I find it quite frightening the things cyclists do,” he said. “They ought to take a minimum amount of care over their safety. It seems to me ridiculous to deprive yourself of what is the second most important of your senses.”
National media coverage of an earlier accident that caused the death of a cyclist, 32-year-old Australian student Patricia McMillan, also focused on the fact that she was wearing headphones when she was struck by a left-turning HGV outside Acton Police Station in February 2006.
However, local residents subsequently launched a campaign calling for safety improvements to be made at the junction where she was killed, which had recently been redesigned, while cycle campaigners highlighted the dangers of riding on the inside of HGVs, which account for a disproportionate number of cyclist fatalities.
News of King’s remarks about the supposed menace posed by cyclists listening to music comes just days after a survey conducted by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) found that 72% of motorists considered drivers using mobile phones as the biggest danger on the country’s roads.
Commenting on that survey, the AA president said: "People are right to be concerned about the continued use of mobile phones and dangers posed by uninsured and some young drivers. We need more targeting of mobile phone drivers to get the message out that it is just not acceptable."
Meanwhile, one company in South Africa has taken an innovative approach to the issue. Slipstreamz has two products – The Slip and The Spoiler – that earbuds can be clipped into. Once attached to the helmet, they let the cyclist enjoy background music while they ride while minimising wind noise but allowing road sound to filter through.
So what do you think? Do you listen to music while you ride, and if so, do you think it has any effect on your awareness? If you don't wear them, should they be banned?
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.