Cycling with earphones. It’s not one of the red-hot touch-points in the lexicon of cycling debate like helmets and presumed liability are, but it’s still one of the topics that divides people, much like using a phone while riding. Some people think it’s totally fine or at least couldn’t care less, while others think cycling with earphones is like cycling with your eyes closed.
Here are the questions we have to ask ourselves:
1. Is it dangerous?
This is the first and, clearly, the most obvious question. So is it? Well, dangerous is maybe too vague a term here, and that’s because it depends. It depends on many things, actually. Volume of the music (and possibly even the type of music). One ear or two? Skill of the cyclist. Alertness of the cyclist. Road or path? Busy road or quiet road? Bike facilities or not? Speed. I’m sure there are others, but you get the point.
The most straight forward way of looking at this is to consider if cycling with earphones is exactly as safe as riding without, and to that I’d have to say no.
Of course it’s not. Even if all of the conditions above were as favourable as possible, listening to music even at a low volume demands at least a tiny portion of our attention. The fact remains, however, that ultimately, it’s not as safe as cycling without earphones in. Given this, the next question would be:
2. Is it dangerous enough to worry about it?
Again, it depends. We are, at every moment of our lives, surrounded by potential danger. Most of the time we escape unscathed, unaware that we were ever in its presence. Because people are quick to absolve themselves of any responsibility and our laws have cultivated an environment where lawsuits are a dime a dozen, we now live in a world where we cater to the lowest common denominator. Occupational Health and Safety is out of control (I’m not questioning it’s effectiveness at making safer environments, but at a certain point, at what cost?), and our children are being wrapped in cotton wool, which could be argued is costing them valuable life-lessons. Gone are the days where we would be allowed to walk or ride to school on our own. All the stories we hear our parents and grandparents tell us about the time they rode the sled off the roof of the barn or some other amusing story seem to have taken place in a world different from our own.
(Incidentally, maybe that’s why cycling is taking off in such a big way – a response to a generation of being overly responsible and under-stimulated. Cycling can provide otherwise boring people with a means of personal freedom and somewhat calculated risk-taking with an element of potential danger.)
What I’m saying is that, in a roundabout way, a bit of risk is ok, but it’s usually pretty hard to determine where the cut-off is, other than before you get hurt. The more important factor is whether or not we are forcing other people into the potential consequences of our behaviour with no say in the matter. Risky behaviour where you are the only one that is at risk is one thing, but on public roads, this is often not the case.
3. Is it more dangerous than music in cars?
No. And yes.
To start with, without any music playing, motorists are already a little less in-tune with their surroundings than cyclists or pedestrians, considering that they are sitting in a comfortable, safe, and well-insulated bubble. The music that 99% of motorists listen to just adds to that. Again, volume, etc. has a significant effect.
The difference is that in a car, you are surrounded by a myriad of safety devices that will keep you safe (but not the cyclist or pedestrian you hit). You also have mirrors, presuming you use them.
On a bike, you have your senses to protect you, and that’s it. It’s a fair argument to make that you should make the most of them while cycling.
This might be the place to repeat the obvious – that the far more significant danger is distracted and otherwise irresponsible driving (which doesn’t absolve other road users from being responsible and exercising caution).
4. Is it more dangerous than pedestrians wearing headphones?
Yes. And no.
This hardly needs explaining, so I’ll keep this short. Anecdotal evidence that everyone has personally compiled suggests that the ever-increasing army of smartphone-zombies is at best, an annoyance, and at worst, a danger to themselves and potentially others. Any cyclist can tell you that a shared path can be a bit of a labyrinth when trying to navigate around pedestrians with earphones in, never mind those also staring at their phones. Random changes in direction can and have caused cyclists to run into pedestrians, and I sympathize with the cyclist that has done all the right things in these instances to no avail.
Is it a significant problem? Probably not. More of an annoyance, but with the rare more catastrophic consequence.
5. If it is dangerous, should we not ban all users from listening to music full stop?
That would be all too logical. If anyone is prepared to make a statement that listening to music while cycling is irresponsible and dangerous and should be banned, then it’s only logical to extend that cautionary measure to all modes of transportation, starting with the most dangerous. Any dummy can tell you, however, that just like helmet laws, this would, in reality, start with the most vulnerable road users and then never be applied to the most dangerous road user. Because, cars.
6. Should we worry about other things?
Yes. Obviously, more and better infrastructure and laws. That’s what encourages people to take the bike to work or the shops, and that’s what keeps them doing it, with fewer accidents and deaths, and all of the other benefits that more cycling delivers that I and many others have gone on about over and over again.
Do I cycle with earphones in? Sometimes. I’m not sure that I could say that I’m consistent in how I rationalize that decision. I never do it while riding to work or running errands. I usually don’t do it while riding recreationally. Never while mountain biking. I do it when riding by myself, and even then, not always.
When I do, I only have the earphone in the ear that is away from traffic, leaving the other one free to sense the car approaching a little too fast and a little too close, or to hear the sneaky wheel-sucker now on your wheel, or even to pick out chain rub or hear a slow puncture before barreling around the next corner. I also keep the volume reasonable. When I am on a path, I’ll sometimes stick both in, but one out again when need be.
Though I’ll continue to do so, I am also aware of the undeniable fact that it does compromise your ability to know what’s going on around you, at least to a certain extent. Sometimes I’m grateful to be unaware that a truck has decided to give me three inches of space as it speeds past rather than me nervously or suddenly swerving out of the way. Mostly, however, I’m aware that there are some things that it would be better to be aware of that I’m less so while cycling with earphones in.
In the end, I sometimes do, because I feel comfortable enough with the increase in enjoyment that riding with some great tunes for company provides at the marginal loss of some situational awareness, which I feel is still adequate. Some people aren’t comfortable with that, and that’s cool too. It’s a judgement call that some people will get wrong, and most people will get by with.
Like most things in life, use your brain, consider the factors, think about those around you rather than just yourself, and err on the side of caution if anyone else might potentially pay the price for your indulgences, which, like it or not, cycling with earphones in is.
Header image: source