If you do a quick search for earbuds or headphones on Commute by Bike, you likely will not be surprised to learn that we cover the controversial topic of cycling with headphones about once a year. Posts appear on CBB as early as 2006 to discuss the logic and legality of riding while wearing sound-restricting devices. At this point, starting a conversation about this divisive issue is a bit like running a story about the Kardashians on the cover of Us Weekly – you’ve heard it all before. Or you couldn’t care less. But, secretly, you just have to know what the latest gossip is.(Please keep reading. Despite my clever analogy, this article contains more useful information and less revealing photographs than your typical Us Weekly story.)
In August 2014, Melanie Colavito reported on the subject from a social scientists perspective. She cited a recent study that sought to understand the sensory experiences of a cyclist navigating the urban environment, and ultimately drew the same conclusion that many of us have being drawing since the iPod hit the market and made living dangerously so tempting: “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.”Melanie expanded on this inconclusive conclusion. She explained that it’s possible for people to listen to music and to be hyper-aware of their surroundings at the same time, and that it is also possible for people to ride without headphones and without any real awareness of their surroundings as well. Therefore, whether or not someone is wearing headphones isn’t, in and of itself, indicative of whether or not that someone is a safer or a more aware rider than someone who is not wearing headphones.So what’s the latest gossip, you ask? Bone conduction headphones. While this technology, which sends sound through the bones of the skull to the inner ear rather than piping sound directly into the ear canal, has been around for some time, there has been an explosion of products recently that are being marketed specifically to cyclists and other athletes who engage in outdoor or group activities. There are sporty varieties, standard varieties, and, of course, hipster varieties. There are corresponding taglines, “Practice Safe Cycling,” and misleading headlines, “Concept Headphones That Wont Get You Killed While Biking.” And there’s new cause to discuss whether or not listening to music while you ride is safe or legal or reckless.
Bruce S. Deming, who is an avid cyclist in addition to being an attorney who focuses on bicycle accidents in the Washington, DC area, offered his insight on the issue: “As is often the case, technological advances often outpace the law. In the case of ‘bone phones,’ the same appears to be true. Since they do not appear to convert electrical energy to sound waves per say, and also because they do not sit in the ear, they do not meet the definition of earphones under the Virginia Code [ 46.2-1078].” In Maryland, where headphones and earphones are prohibited on roadways but permitted on bike paths, there is a stated exception in the applicable law that allows for the use of “personal hearing protectors” on the road as long as they “do not inhibit the wearer’s ability to hear a siren or horn from an emergency vehicle or a horn from another vehicle.”Despite the fact that Deming believes that bone conduction headphones are, technically, currently legal in Virginia and Maryland (please note that laws vary by jurisdiction, and the language used in other state laws may differ), whether or not they are safe is a separate issue. “In my opinion,” Deming says, “listening to music while riding is enjoyable, but a distraction from your focus. While these bone phones are likely less dangerous because they don’t impair the auditory canal, they still provide a distraction that takes the brains focus away from the complex tasks at hand. In my opinion, the enjoyment they provide isn’t worth the risks.”And there you have it – fresh fodder for the headphones-while-cycling debate. If you were firmly in the ‘no headphones, ever’ camp before, does the concept of bone conduction audio change your opinion? If you’ve been riding with standard in-ear buds for years, will you make the switch? Is marketing headphones to cyclists, regardless of the technology, irresponsible? Are you still very content with the boom box that you have bungee-corded to your handlebars and you don’t know why we even bother to have this discussion? Let us know your thoughts below.