Should you listen to music through earphones whilst cycling?

By Chris Oliver @cyclingsurgeon

Whilst banning wearing headphones whilst cycling may seem obvious for safety reasons, this behaviour restriction could be unfounded. In the United Kingdom it is currently not illegal to wear headphones whilst cycling on public roads or cycle paths. One would think that listening to music may distract you from your surroundings. It may also prevent you from hearing other vehicles approach and thus jeopardise your own safety.

headphones-cycling

When cycling, there is a dynamic environment and a dependency on balance, speed, vision and hearing. All are required with many other factors such as wind and ice to ride safely.

Despite the common perspective that a greater ability to hear external sounds is safer and therefore better cycling practice, credible scientific evidence about cycling and wearing headphones is very limited. One Dutch paper by de Waard [2] from 2011 studied a small series of 25 subjects who wore headphones. An auditory beep was used to alert of a hazard whilst listening to music. When the headphones were worn on both ears only 68% of cyclists heard the audible stop. When just one headphone was used all audible stops were heard. The researchers also found negative effects of high volume and fast tempo on auditory perception. The problem with this study is that no consideration was given to any visual warnings. Generally cyclists will use both visual and auditory information to stay safe. Stop signals are not auditory. There are red lights, white lines, and so on. All visual. Unfortunately there is really little evidence about how cycling with headphones affects concentration.

There must also be a consideration for hearing impaired and deaf cyclists. Being deaf and driving any vehicle, being in an enclosed vehicle or riding a bicycle is also not illegal in the United Kingdom. If one was to argue that the loss of ability to hear sounds was in itself sufficient reason to prohibit cycling with headphones, one would also have to argue that deaf and partially deaf people would have to be banned from cycling. [1] Cars have music systems and therefore, logically, if one was to argue that loss of concentration through listening to music or speech was in itself sufficient reason to prohibit cycling with headphones, one would also have to argue that car stereos would have to be banned. With large numbers of pedestrians using smartphones and listening to music whilst walking one might also have to argue that this habit might have to be considered illegal?

A BBC poll conducted in 2014 resulted in almost 90 per cent questioned being in favour of a blanket ban of cycling and wearing headphones. Many respondents perceived that cyclists would be more unaware and unresponsive to dangers, and therefore more likely to be involved in incidents. One study showed that listening to your favourite artists can increase your endurance by up to 15 per cent while lowering your perception of effort [3]. Competitive cyclists often use radio earphones often just in one ear to communicate with team cars to set speed and their own power output.

Cycling and headphones causes much emotion and controversial debate, especially in the media. [4]. Victim blaming can be very upsetting in some accident situations. The facts of cycling accidents have to be absolutely established. Before anyone can come to any strong conclusions, we need further research to build up the evidence base on the use of headphones while cycling.

References

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Professor Chris Oliver, Physical Activity for Health Research Centre, University of Edinburgh
Consultant Trauma Orthopaedic Hand Surgeon, Royal Infirmary Edinburgh

c.w.oliver@ed.ac.uk

http://tinyurl.com/ntpmtar/

Twitter: @cyclingsurgeon

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  • avlowe

    There are at least 3 RAIB reports of investigation into fatal collisions between cyclists and rail vehicles on level crossings, in one case in particular the evidence included reports from 2 pedestrians passed by the rider immediately prior to the fatal event in which they noted his ‘hood-up’ ‘world of his own’ failure to observe them and their shouts not to cross the line with the train they clearly heard approaching. His actions were also recorded on the train’s CCTV – oblivious to the noise of a full service brake application and sounding of a railway train horn (100+dB)

    Conversely you might also list and analyse the distances travelled by HGV and bus drivers after hitting and running over pedestrians and cyclists (eg taking 49 metres to stop after a 13mph impact). The recent Lavender Hill fatality is a case in point where the driver travelled over 100 metres before being stopped. The massive reduction in the ability to hear external sounds in a cab with the windows closed has been noted as far greater than the reduction in hearing delivered by earpiece or ‘transparent’ headphones. Many professional drivers habitually drive with the driver’s window open for the very reason that it provides access to a second sense for safety checking – I’ve had several occasions where my open window has alerted me by tyre or engine noise, to a vehicle not readily visible in my rear view mirror, and equally in winter, or roads which are ice covered (tyre noise disappears)

    Pedestrians are perhaps more at risk than cyclists, and I’ve had collisions and near collisions with pedestrians intently focussed on what is often a phone call oblivious to a verbal call to alert them to my presence and the potential of a collision.

    For drivers the duty of care element must be considered. If they see a pedestrian or cyclist who fails to acknowledge the presence of their vehicle both initially and after using their ‘audible warning of approach’ in the manner prescribed by traffic law, then the onus is on the driver to act accordingly to prevent the presence of their vehicle causing harm – again as recognised by the legal requirement of Section 170 RTA 1988 to provide details for any civil claim for harm caused.

  • Paul

    I use my earbuds for talk radio when cycling in London, so I am not sure if this article is only for those who prefer Radio 3 music. Looking into car windows the use of smartphones by drivers is the norm now, so I don’t see cyclists as a real risk to public safety.

  • Prof Chris Oliver

    thanks for your erudite comments, we do need some decent scientific studies.

  • avlowe

    Given that many medical specialists are called to appear at inquests (but not often enough for road crashes) Can I put out an appeal for any feedback from these proceedings. In many cases the drivers of large vehicles claim not to have heard or felt anything, yet there would appear to be a paucity of objective detail on this.

    As an example, I was at an inquest on a fatality at Bow, London, and the comment was made that the noise from the A12 might have drowned out the sounds/crying out when the truck hit the cyclist at 13mph .. and then took 49 METRES to stop. No one asking HOW noisy (exceeding 80dB by the SPL meter on my smartphone), nor asking whether the driver’s window was open or closed, or whether the radio was on… *

    This inquest also had serious unanswered questions, on how a truck doing just 13mph manages to rear-end a fit commuting cyclist who would typically be travelling at 15-20mph at that point, and other incomplete/missing evidence. But that’s another story.

    * Likewise at both Ludgate Circus, and The Bank the victims were making a great fuss as they saw the driver turning the truck to drive into them – At Ludgate Circus – according to witnesses – shouting.

  • Prof Chris Oliver

    A good point. We should try and gather this data.

  • Liz A

    DCAL in London has done research which shows that deaf people have better peripheral vision than hearing people (Unfortunately I can’t easily find it on their website to link to). Does the argument that banning headphones should also mean banning deaf people still stand?

  • Robin

    What about the article on whether car drivers listening to music are impaired and hit more cyclists? Would be great if the angle was looking at ways the perpetrators of the crime could reduce incidence of accidents rather than focusing on the victim.