Music and Cycling: Should They Be Combined?

Is it ok to listen to music while you ride your bike? It’s a question that’s almost as controversial as the great helmet debate. And it’s a question that appears to never really be settled. As long as there have been portable noise making devices and bicycles, people have been putting the two together and arguing about whether or not it’s safe.

As is common with debates like this, it was recently brought up again. Just a few days ago, another piece appeared in The Telegraph, positing the very same question, “Should cyclists be allowed to listen to music?” The article’s author, Sam Walker, was hoping to follow up on London major Boris Johnson’s threat from last fall to ban cyclists from wearing earphones. But when Walker contacted them, the major’s office was mum on the subject.

But more interestingly, Walker references a recent study by Katrina Jungnickel of the University of London and Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster titled “Cyclings Sensory Strategies: How Cyclists Mediate their Exposure to the Urban Environment.” I was pretty excited to read this, as there aren’t a lot of studies about the connections between headphones and bike safety. And not that science can exactly quell the debate, but it is fun to have some data to fuel the fire.

Nonetheless, the study is more about the sensory experiences of a cyclist navigating the urban environment than it is about the connections between headphones and safety. It’s authors are explicitly trying to dig deeper into popular media accusations of the iPod zombie cyclist to understand how cyclists develop sensory strategies for experiencing an urban environment by bike. They aren’t satisfied with the argument that earphones turn you into a zombie on two wheels, and frankly, most of us probably aren’t either.

Photo Credit: Rob O’Neal/ Getty Images

While the study is definitely interesting and useful (caveat: I’m a social scientist), it’s also more theoretical than pragmatic. It is not set up to answer the question about whether riding with headphones is any more or less dangerous than not riding with headphones. The study’s basic conclusion is that “listening and not listening are not simple or straightforward separate conditions but can co-exist, signalling a range of messy sensory engagements, networks of complex actors and social situations.”

Ok, let me translate that for the non-social scientists. Basically, what they are arguing is that simply choosing to listen to music while you ride doesn’t mean you aren’t also aware of your surroundings. Conversely, choosing to not listen to music while you ride doesn’t mean you are aware of your surroundings either. Listening or not listening to music are additions (or subtractions) to the complex array of sensations and sensory inputs that we’re already dealing with when we ride our bikes. In short, it’s not so simple.

If I can extrapolate further, it means that this question of whether or not it’s safe to ride a bike and listen to music with headphones at the same time really depends on the person and the context. Can someone safely ride to and fro work everyday and listen to a little Bob Marley at a moderate volume with the headphone earpiece in just the non-traffic side ear? Yes, most likely. Can someone safely ride to and fro work everyday and listen to a little Rammstein at full volume with noise canceling headphones on both ears? Maybe, maybe not.

But it always depends on the person. If you’re prone to zoning out the world no matter how you travel, it might not be so safe for you to ride with headphones. If you’re hyper aware and vigilant, you’ll probably zone the music out most of the time anyhow, since you’re prone to to be more aware of your surroundings and less focused on the music.

So is it safe to ride a bike while listening to music? Here’s my favorite scientific answer of all time: it depends.

It would be great to see some more studies on this topic, however. Perhaps an experiment to test riding or not riding with music and certain variables related to safety would help to answer the question further. But even with more data, I think the answer will be the same. It depends.

Oh, and it also depends on whether or not it’s legal where you live. See if your state regulates cycling and headphone use.

And for those of you who plan to keep on riding to the beat, there are all kinds of neat options available now to do so in a safer manner.

Do you listen to music when you bike commute? Why or why not?

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