Sometimes it comes up in conversation that I occasionally wear headphones on a bicycle. Some people accept it as normal, other people seem surprised.
Can you ride a bicycle with earphones and be safe doing it? I say if a driver inside a car can blast their stereo as loud as they want, then any other road user should be able to listen to music the same way. And let’s not forget that deaf people can ride bicycles too.
But, people on bicycles are more vulnerable and have to be more aware of their surroundings. Every road user should be aware of their surroundings, ESPECIALLY the people operating heavy machinery like cars. In fact, it is much more important that vehicle drivers be aware of their surroundings in order to avoid injuring anyone.
And the best way to be aware of your surroundings is vision. That’s why they have a vision test at the DMV and deaf people can drive around with no problems.
Now that my main argument is out of the way, let’s talk about some other advantages and disadvantages, because wearing headphones on a bicycle isn’t for everyone. You may not want to go and blast your earbuds on your next bike commute to work.
Why I Wear Headphones on a Bicycle
First of all, I’d say I wear headphones while I’m riding about 20% of the time. Usually, I’m outside to enjoy that fresh air and ambient noise of nature and urban life. There are two reasons why I may wear headphones on a bike ride.
1. Enjoying the Music
Sometimes I’m really enjoying my music, audiobook, podcast, whatever, and I don’t want to stop for my bike ride. My wind blocking helmet attachments are essential in allowing me to hear what’s playing without having to turn it up loud. A bluetooth speaker is also an option if you just want to listen to music, but you’re sharing your music with everyone else on the road too, so you better be confident in your music choice 😉
I know some people who enjoy the bone conduction headphones which leave your ears completely free to hear the outside world, so if enjoying the music is your goal this is a very safe and legal way to do it!
I prefer the sound isolating earbuds since it also achieves my secondary reason for wearing headphones…
2. Blocking Out the Road Noise
In a busy urban environment, there are sounds that can be REALLY loud and distracting. Blocking out some of the noise allows me to ride my bicycle in peace and focus on being safe and comfortable. That loud bus next to me and the car honking can become stressful and anxiety inducing. There is even research that blocking out these distracting noises can help people biking better handle the sensory landscape. I definitely feel a calmer state of mind when I lower the volume on the rush hour din.
Maybe I won’t even play music in my headphones, essentially just using them as earplugs. I can still hear most of my surroundings anyway, just a little quieter.
Another benefit of some sound isolation is not being startled by any loud sounds. That car directly behind you that’s honking? I may flinch if I didn’t have any ear protection. I’ve never crashed because of a flinch, but it has been an uncomfortable experience, and I’d feel better if I wasn’t startled.
In a recent video I made going down Market Street during rush hour in San Francisco, I was wearing my Jabra Elite 65T earbuds playing some soothing Tibetan Bowls music. It made my ride much more pleasant, and I could still hear enough road noise.
Many sound isolating/canceling true wireless earbuds (like the Airpod Pros) have a kind of passthrough or transparency mode where they will take sounds from the microphone and pipe it into your ears. This way you can actually hear the environment around you as well as whatever’s coming through the headphones. Sometimes I’ll toggle it throughout my bike ride with my Jabra’s if I feel like I need more external sounds at the moment.
Safety Concerns of Wearing Headphones
Let’s get one thing straight: it’s definitely safer to be able to hear more of your environment. With more senses available, you may be able to use your hearing to gather more information about the world around you. However, do you NEED to hear in order to get around? No way.
There is one thing that hearing is best used for: people passing you from behind. If you’re playing music loud enough, you may not hear other bicycles or cars that are soon to pass you. If you’re riding your bike predictably, this shouldn’t be an issue, but you have to be much more vigilant as you move side to side. You’ll have to look behind you much more often, even for small movements, because you’ll never know if someone is about to whiz by you.
A crowded bike lane is probably the most dangerous place to be without your hearing. Because people on bikes and micromobility communicate at a lower volume, they might ring a bell or say “Coming Up!” or “On Your Left!” while passing, and you may not hear these call outs.
Cars passing you is less of an issue. They should be giving you more space as they pass, and there’s little in your control related to that. As I said above, earphones can dim the road noise and make a car passing a less stressful experience (given that you’re on a safe road).
Legal Concerns of Wearing Headphones
Unfortunately, there are some places where they don’t agree with all my arguments and they have made bicycling with headphones illegal. If you are in a place like that, send them this post! Then tell your friends to send them this post.
But it goes without saying that you should follow the laws of your jurisdiction, or else if anything bad happens you will be put at fault (even if it wasn’t your fault) because you were doing something against the law. And then you might get a ticket on top of that.
However, some places don’t really enforce these rules, so here in California there are plenty of people wearing headphones in both ears, even though the law states only one earbud can be worn at a time.
Lastly, do you think the bike haven cities like Amsterdam have headphone laws? Definitely not.
Be safe and do what you feel comfortable doing. If you don’t want to wear headphones on a bicycle, that’s fine, but don’t judge anyone else doing so. If someone is riding in the middle of the bike lane not letting you pass, they’ll probably still hear you if you yell loud enough.
If you feel safer wearing headphones, go ahead and do that. Maybe you want to hear your navigation and block out some road noise. That’s perfectly fine, and I hope one day that will also be perfectly legal. (Disclaimer: Do this at your own risk!)
Whatever you do, get some wind blocking helmet attachments to keep that wind noise down!