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Two thirds of road users say cyclists should be banned from using headphones, claims survey

Road safety charity describes headphones as “the ultimate distraction” – but opinion remains divided among riders

More than two thirds of road users in the UK support a ban on cyclists wearing headphones while riding their bikes, according to a new survey conducted among 35,000 road users across 32 countries worldwide – with a British road safety charity describing them as “the ultimate distraction.”

The E-Survey of Road Users’ Attitudes (ESRA), whose partners include governments and national road safety associations, found that across the sample as a whole,  65.8 per cent of respondents backed such a ban, including 68.2 per cent of respondents in the UK, wiith around 1,000 people quizzed in each country. We don't know if respondents were asked whether listening to music while driving should also be banned. 

In Europe, support for a headphones ban was highest in Spain, at nearly 80 per cent, and lowest in Finland, at 36 per cent. Countries with the strongest cycling cultures such as the Netherlands and Denmark saw a small minority of road users in favour of a ban.

Globally, more women than men were in favour of a ban while by age, 18-24 year olds were most opposed to such a measure, with 53.5 per cent of that age group worldwide expressing support, but only 44.1 per cent in Europe.

Neil Greig, Policy and Research Director at the road safety charity IAM RoadSmart, commented: “It’s clear that the majority of road users are very concerned about distracted cyclists wearing headphones or earbuds while riding. These findings were consistent right across the world in this substantial survey.

“Being plugged in to either headphones or earbuds is the ultimate distraction, as it completely shuts you off to your surroundings, creating a potential road safety risk to yourself, pedestrians and other road users around you. This is even more critical with the popularity and increasing prevalence of noise-cancelling equipment.”

He added: “There are plans to update the Highway Code being discussed as we speak, so now is a great time to have an informed debate about the best way for cyclists to avoid potentially fatal distractions.”

In fact the consultation to planned changes to the Highway Code closed last month, with no reference in the Department for Transport’s proposed new wording made to banning headphones and similar audio equipment for cyclists or other road users for that matter.

The Highway Code does, however, say that both motorists and cyclists should avoid distractions, with listening to music at excessive volume, for example, potentially falling into that category.

The government has however consistently rejected calls for cycling while using headphones to be banned – including one in November 2013 from Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, after the deaths of six riders in the capital although he did not cite any evidence of audio devices being a factor in those facilities.

> Government “will not legislate” for Mayor of London’s cyclist headphone ban

In 2018, researchers in the Netherlands published research which found that wearing headphones while riding “negatively affects perception of sounds crucial for safe cycling.”

> Dutch study: Using headphones “Negatively affects perception of sounds crucial for safe cycling”

The authors of the study suggested that cyclists listening to music or talking on their phone in a country with less cycling infrastructure than the Netherlands might be more at risk.

Commenting on that study, Duncan Dollimore of Cycling UK said at the time: “Our view is that wearing headphones is inadvisable, particularly if listening at high volumes or with headphones that completely shut out sound, but the idea that headphone wearing cyclists are any more of a problem than headphone wearing pedestrians is not borne out by any evidence we have seen.”

Whether or not to wear headphones while riding is of course a matter of personal choice, with some taking the view that listening to music can distract from what is happening around them.

Others, however, insist that they are able to maintain awareness of their surroundings while wearing headphones, and that banning them would be similar to saying that deaf people are not allowed to ride bikes.  

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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