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CTC says choice should be left to individual and eyesight more important than hearing

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.

48 comments

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jobysp [143 posts] 6 years ago
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I used to listen to my ipod whilst cycling but found myself getting into more scrapes and near misses than I liked too.

I removed them, and my cycling became alot safer and I was more aware of what was going on around me.

I also convinced another ipod wearing cyclist to drop it, and his confidence on the road has improved no end.

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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So often when I ride, it is into headwind which makes so much noise that you cannot hear anything else. Also riding at a reasonable speed (20mph plus), the wind noise drowns out the sound of cars.

I would never rely on sound to dictate whether to make a manoeuvre or not, and always rely completely on my vision.

Maybe being distracted by music could be an issue, but I don't think the inability to hear traffic is the problem.

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nigel_s [41 posts] 6 years ago
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OK, so is this suggesting that listening to sound systems whilst cocooned in a motor vehicle is also a 'menace'?

If so, why wasn't it mentioned in the article?

Or is this just another example of the usual mindless prejudice and hypocrisy that makes this country a laughing stock?

Or, perhaps, the unthinking reactionary mob that makes up the bulk of so-called "middle England" are getting so frustrated because they'd can't outwardly display their prejudices against those of a different religion or skin colour so they have to turn against those who choose a different mode of transport.

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jobysp [143 posts] 6 years ago
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What I meant to say is that it is not OK for ME to wear an iPod as I get easily distracted  1

It can, of course, be completely different for other people.

I think the biggest danger regarding this is pedestrians listening to their ipods and not looking as they cross out into the road.  4 Happens to me on a daily basis in Manchester.

Or how about the School Bus Driver who I saw this morning with a cup of coffee in one hand, steering and changing gears with the other, all whilst laughing and joking with the passenger at the front.

Or the woman on Stockport Road texting as she was driving erratically up it.

Or the boy racer who had his music that loud I couldn't hear anything but the rumble of his subwoofer.

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Barry Fry-up [187 posts] 6 years ago
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Quote:

OK, so is this suggesting that listening to sound systems whilst cocooned in a motor vehicle is also a 'menace'?

no, it isn't suggesting that - that's another argument if you want to have it. same for iPeds. two wrongs don't make a right anyway.

what it's suggesting is that if you choose to wear headphones then you're impairing your ability to judge the road because 1) music is distracting and 2) it masks other sounds you might want to hear. And i'd tend to agree, especially on the first call. DaSy's right: wind can mask sounds too. but you can't control that, and you can control your iPod.

Cyclists are always going on about how bikes are not the same as cars, and they're right. the same rules don't necessarily apply. but that rubs both ways

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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I do agree with Barry, cars and motorbikes are both isolated from outside noise, but they have good coverage of what is happening behind them via mirrors, so the same rules don't necessarily apply.

The problem is that you are preaching to the converted here, we are all serious enough about cycling that we frequent internet sites about it. So no doubt we cycle more and take the whole thing more seriously than many of these victims listed above. I wonder if iPod wearing is just more endemic amongst the more casual riders, and that it is in fact their inexperience that gets them into trouble rather than the iPod itself.

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Hammy [97 posts] 6 years ago
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that's a good point Dasy, but i certainly know some serious mile munchers who commute and train all year round who are always plugged in to their iPods. I asked one of them about the noise masking effects once and he said that he just kept the thing turned down low - personally I'd find that even more distracting - good rider or not, if you can't hear what's coming up behind you you are at a disadvantage.

I suppose the counter argument is that if something is coming up behind you fast enough to do you harm, being able to hear it is unlikely to make much difference and that you should be looking behind anyway before you manouvre in to potential harm's way.

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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For me, experience has taught me that my hearing is impaired by many environmental issues such as speed and wind conditions, so I cannot rely on it in all circumstances, so choose to not rely on it at all. I will always check over my shoulder if swinging around a pothole, changing lanes etc.

That said, I would never ride with an iPod, as the solitude and engagement with the ride is what I crave, I don't want to be taken back to my normal life by having a backing track. I love music in the car as it makes a dull job a little bit more entertaining though.

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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Plus you may have some speed crazed chef silently approaching in a Tesla, so sound is not a good indicator that all is safe or otherwise.

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dave atkinson [6201 posts] 6 years ago
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I wouldn't ride through town with a music player but i deffo needed one in the Atacama desert  1

horses for courses i reckon, but the reason i took one on a big tour is precisely becasue it *is* distracting, and that's why i wouldn't use one on the commute.

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cactuscat [284 posts] 6 years ago
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for me this basically seems to boil down to, "people who are idiots are dangerous in traffic". be they texting car drivers, holier-than-thou red light jumpers and pavement riders, iPeds, whoever. The fact that they're wearing a iPod, texting, or whatever is just a symptom of the main problem: they're idiots. if they weren't doing that they'd be doing some other idiot thing. to quote Blackadder, "if we went around punishing people for being stupid, Nursie would have been in prison all her life"  1

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OldRidgeback [2567 posts] 6 years ago
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I never wear my iPod while riding, it's as much to do with comfort as common sense. Sound is a useful tool in knowing what's coming but it shouldn't be relied on completely. Keeping your eyes open and looking round regularly and/or using a mirror is the best way to know what's all around you.

The problems of sound inside vehicles have been noted - drivers playing loud rock or rap music have a higher incidence of accidents and there is research on this (check the TRL website).

Motorcyclists are not protected from incoming sound by the way Dasy - dunno where you got that idea from.

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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OldRidgeback wrote:

Motorcyclists are not protected from incoming sound by the way Dasy - dunno where you got that idea from.

My experience on a motorbike has always been with a full face helmet that has done a very good job of blocking out sound. I even find that with the thinner, less padded full face downhill MTB helmets, sounds like that is just me though....

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OldRidgeback [2567 posts] 6 years ago
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Dasy - neither of my full face helmets (an Arai and a shoei) do much to block out sound. The MX helmet i have for BMX riding and occasional use on the motorbike has practically no sound damping effect at all. I have to wear earplugs for longer journeys when I know I'll be going over 60mph and this is recommended. I don't like having them in as it's uncomfortable and I notice that it doesn't help balance (inner ear pressures maybe), as well as reducing awareness.

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stuke [335 posts] 6 years ago
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cactuscat wrote:

for me this basically seems to boil down to, "people who are idiots are dangerous in traffic". be they texting car drivers, holier-than-thou red light jumpers and pavement riders, iPeds, whoever. The fact that they're wearing a iPod, texting, or whatever is just a symptom of the main problem: they're idiots. if they weren't doing that they'd be doing some other idiot thing. to quote Blackadder, "if we went around punishing people for being stupid, Nursie would have been in prison all her life"  1

i think you've hit the nail right on the head there!! If the driver/cyclist/pedestrian has no spatial awareness anyway and doesn't keep an eye on things going on around them then wearing an iPod is going to make little difference. I've worn an iPod for years while training and wear it every day on my 35 mile commute and never once been caught out because of not hearing traffic. If you keep an eye on what is going on around you it doesn't matter if you can hear or not.

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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Oldridgeback - this all sounds like the reason I don't rely on sound, I think I'm impaired!

With a full face lid on, all I can hear is my breathing, which sends me insane...

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Hibbs [7 posts] 6 years ago
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(to Stuke) Hear hear. It's not that they're used, but how they're used. It's too simple to simply say "ipods are bad, mkay". There are bad users and there are good users. Why should the good users be punished because of the bad ones? ... and there are plenty of "care and attention" laws already to punish the bad users without resorting to an outright ban.

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andyn [7 posts] 6 years ago
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There's not enough info out there it seems to make an informed judgment, as mentioned in the article, so I'd only vote if there was a don't know option.

However, instinctively, it feels wrong to me. I use my hearing when out training all the time, to gauge the distance, direction, speed, acceleration and type of vehicles that are out of my field of view.

I feel my ability to determine these things as a result of being a cyclist for a very long time gives me a safety advantage. When I lose this ability (e.g. high winds) I do feel I have less control over my situation, and that I am at more risk.

CTC's comment about deaf people being encouraged to cycle, therefore why not iPod users, is absurd logic, bordering on the dangerous. We all I am sure would encourage those with a mobility problem to cross the road, but why would you encourage someone who is able-bodied to voluntarily put themselves in a dangerous environment without all their faculties available to them?

I wouldn't for a moment discourage the deaf from cycling, but they have no choice with their hearing, and I am sure as a result take extra care (as they have to in other traffic situations), knowing they face a little more risk than a hearing person.

If the CTC think there is no issue with iPods they should come up with something facts-based to prove they are safe, not jump defensively to defend a cycling issue for the sake of it, without any serious facts at their disposal. I'd rather see the CTC putting out a holding position, and doing something to find out whether it is dangerous, like commissioning an independent study.

That said, I've been meaning to actually try cycling with an iPod myself, as an experiment, as I fancy the idea of cycling with music, and I was going to see if I felt any less safe when doing so. Provided you can still hear traffic (iPod at reasonable volume), can I still detect vehicles in the same way? The only thing that has stopped me, is a dodgy iPod, preventing me from getting my music onto the damn thing!

Of course there are other more important issues, there always are. Of course car drivers listen to music too, but they have mirrors, crumple zones and air bags, and I'd say they would also use their hearing a little (to a lesser extent than cyclists) - I do when driving. Of course you cannot rely 100% on sound to make decisions, but I'd personally rather have more info regarding what is going on around me than less, so I'll only use one if I can still use my hearing as I do now.

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Fringe [1047 posts] 6 years ago
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being a music snob (as well as a bike snob), means i would never sully a bike ride with music that i couldn't fully concentrate on..

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tom3668 [10 posts] 6 years ago
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One ear is okay!

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Fringe [1047 posts] 6 years ago
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tom3668 wrote:

One ear is okay!

yeah if you listen to a mono recording and yer stuck in the 50's  4

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OldRidgeback [2567 posts] 6 years ago
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Regarding deaf people - they're used to not being able to hear and used to looking round to see what's coming.

Dasy - my hearing's not been the same since I saw Motorhead and Tenpole Tudor (remember them?) in the same week, errr, a long time ago. My left ear suffered badly and I rely on the right - another reason I wouldn't wear an iPod while riding one of my bicycles or my motorbike. One of the guys in the BMX club wears his iPod on the track but then you're not looking over your shoulder there - still think he's nuts though.

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dave atkinson [6201 posts] 6 years ago
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Quote:

One ear is okay!

try listening to Lenny Kravitz through one ear and one entire guitar will be missing  4

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dave atkinson [6201 posts] 6 years ago
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Quote:

Tenpole Tudor

over the hill with the swords of a thousand men! i remember that track being on the kick up the eighties retrospective thing that i videoed in 1989 and watched about 100 times until the tape broke

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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I remember seeing (well sort of) Motorhead at the alternative aid gig in Camden Lock at the same time as the Live Aid thingy was going on, '85 suppose.

I was really steaming, as was my way in those days, and passed out near a speaker throughout Motorhead and woke up around the time The Toydolls were playing, that may account for my dubious hearing.

I saw Tenpole Tudor a few times too. The best gig of theirs I was at was in Feltham Football club, they played rural punk, and had a group of about 30 skinheads square dancing, I was one of them.

Anti-Nowhere League in the 100 club was another hearing impairment suspect.

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Simon_MacMichael [2448 posts] 6 years ago
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Anti-Nowhere League at the 100 Club, DaSy? Wow, we could well have been in the same room at the same time. I did some casual work there back in the day, remember talking to Animal and the rest before a gig, very different, um, animal to the on-stage persona.

They seemed to get third support slot at The Lyceum all the time, possibly connected to the fact that the promoter of the Sunday night punk gigs there was also their manager, I think.

And yes before you ask, I've been to Brighton, I've been to Hastings, I've been to Eastbourne, too. So what?
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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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so what, so what, you boring little....!

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DaSy [687 posts] 6 years ago
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The snowman will also make you happy, he's gonna err..you know what he's going to do.

That's cool Simon, I was often up there or Brixton Fridge (saw Clash there back in the day}, which was an experience for a skinhead in the '80's. Feltham Footbal Club was a great venue though, it was really small, so bands like UK Subs, Blitz, Toydolls, Peter and the Test Tube Babies The Business, etc were really going for it, as the crowd was right there with them.

Killing Joke at the Top Rank in Reading was amazing too, we all had to leave our boots outside the front door, and when a stage invasion got past the bouncers, Wizard, this crazy fire breathing dude blasted us with a big gob full of flames, we soon legged it.

Wow, this is bringing back some memories...

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OldRidgeback [2567 posts] 6 years ago
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Killing Joke - saw them in Edinburgh in the 80s - wild concert. A big mob of skinheads turned up, not sure why, and there was a huge fight between them and the bouncers. The band played on throughout - you could've cut the atmosphere with a knife, intense.
As for the Brixton Fridge, it's very different these days.
Eddie Tenpole is apparently related to the Tudor family (Henry VIII and Elizabeth the 1st), hence the name.

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Simon_MacMichael [2448 posts] 6 years ago
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I had a biker jacket lovingly painted with names of my favourite bands on it, one of which was Chelsea.

Didn't think through the implications of that one the night I decided to wear it on the North Bank Highbury for an Arsenal match...

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