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Nine in ten people back headphone ban for cyclists, says BBC survey

One in six riders admit listening to music - but academic says doing so impairs concentration by 10 per cent

Nine in ten people want wearing headphones while riding a bike banned, according to a BBC poll which also found that one in six cyclists had admitted doing so.

The findings of the survey were reported this morning on BBC Breakfast, which is running a series of reports on cycling this week.

One cyclist wearing earbuds told BBC News transport correspondent Richard Wescott that he wasn’t actually listening to music, and only used them to be alerted to an incoming phone call. “I can hear you perfectly well with these,” he said.

Another acknowledged, “It’s not the safest thing you can do when you’re cycling,” but added, “it gets very boring if you’re commuting a long way in the morning and then again the afternoon, so you’ve got to live with it.”

Westcott underwent tests at Brunel University in West London in which he rode a static bike, sometimes to the accompaniment of music, at other times without it, to assess the effect on him.

Sports psychologist Costas Karageorghis, an expert on the use of music by athletes who has said that some consider it “to be a legal drug with no unwanted side effects” told the reporter that listening to it did affect levels of concentration.

“It reduces the amount of attention that’s available to deal with whatever’s going on on the road by about 10 per cent. So you’re less aware and it places you at risk,” he said.

“It’s about an immersion and it’s a combination of being lost in the music and also not having sufficient capacity to deal with what’s going on around you.” 

The 89 per cent of respondents to the BBC poll is identical to the finding of a Sunday Times survey on the same issue we reported on last November after Mayor of London Boris Johnson said he wanted to ban the city’s cyclists from using headphones.

Mr Johnson made his remarks after six cyclists lost their lives on the capital’s roads during a two-week period, although as far as we are aware none were reported to have been wearing headphones.

In an interview with BBC Radio London’s Vanessa Feltz, he said: "I'm very alarmed about cyclists wearing headphones. I would not be against a prohibition or ban on cyclists wearing headphones.

“Call me illiberal but it makes me absolutely terrified to see them bowling along unable to hear the traffic."

A government source subsequently said that there were no plans to introduce legislation to make the use of headphones while cycling illegal, pointing out it would mean deaf people should not cycle either, and that the Highway Code already advised cyclists and motorists to avoid distractions.

In a magazine article published today on the BBC News website, John Franklin, author of the book Cyclecraft, told the BBC that the use of hearing to be aware of what was happening around you, such as the sound of a motorist accelerating, was more important for cyclists than for other road users.

"In order to ride safely on the road, you need to be aware all the time of what's happening all around you - not just in front of you," he said.

"To be distracted in any way through headphones is a big mistake," he added.

Unlike issues such as cycle helmets, which saw Chris Boardman come under criticism for not wearing one in a film for BBC Breakfast earlier this week, there has not been much research into the effect of headphones on the safety of cyclists is lacking.

"It's probably so obvious that it's a silly thing to do that no-one will get research funding," said Dr Ian Garrard of Brunel University, who has published research on how much space drivers gave him while cycling depending on the clothing he was wearing.

However, a study published in 2011 in the journal Transportation Research by researchers from the University of Groningen said that "listening to music resulted in reduced visual and auditory perception and reduced speed" and could also affect the stability of the cyclist.

It added: "Negative effects are very large when in-earbuds are used. Negative effects of high volume and fast tempo on auditory perception were found,” although “no negative effects were found when listening to music using only one earbud."

The BBC Breakfast report concluded with Westcott taking a spin on a tandem with Roger Geffen, campaigns and policy director at national cyclists’ charity CTC, who said he was against banning headphones.

“It’s probably going to make a bit of a difference particularly if you wear completely enclosed headphones and/or you play music at very high volumes.

“But you can probably say exactly the same for pedestrians and there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s a bigger deal for cycle safety than for pedestrian safety,” he added.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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