Bikes and Headphones: Do They Mix?

Are You Out of Your Mind to Wear Headphones While Cycling?

There are no two ways about it; cycling is dangerous. Dodging a maze of cars, open doors, potholes, pedestrians and other obstacles while pedaling maniacally on two wheels is what every cyclist encounters on his or her daily ride. Now, imagine doing all of this minus one of your senses.

You see them on the road, advertising their lack of hearing with the wires of their earbuds drooping down to pocketed iPods and smartphones. It's almost annoying that this person—oblivious to his or her surroundings and destined to contribute to a scary statistic—is completely within his or her right to do so. At least, in 48 of the 50 states.

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Florida and Rhode Island are the only two states that have banned wearing headphones while cycling. New York, California and Virginia allow cyclists to use headphones, but they must keep one ear free. So, due to a lack of legal consistency, this becomes a debate over common sense.

Despite its obvious dangers—not hearing traffic, sirens, horns, bike malfunctions, etc.—not wearing headphones while cycling is still not a universally accepted convention within the cycling community.

No, cycling with headphones is not as perilous as driving while texting, and I'm not suggesting a fear-inducing advertising campaign to put an end to it. However, if you've ever wondered whether you are utterly insane for cycling with headphones, yes, yes you are.

But How Dangerous is Cycling with Headphones?

According to a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association, cycling-related fatalities are trending upward. After such accidents had been in decline for much of the early aughtsle, the U.S. saw a 16-percent increase in cycling fatalities between 2010 and 2012.

While there's no reason to point fingers at earbud-wearing pedalers, an inability to hear traffic doesn't make anyone "safer."

"But where's the hard data?" you might ask.

Requiring extraordinary evidence and refusing to do something despite a commonly held belief that it's dangerous signals a rebellious attitude. This is something inherent in many cyclists, which is completely understandable. But studies backing up the claim that cycling with headphones is dangerous do exist.

According to a 2011 study conducted by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, a cyclist's response to auditory signals while listening to music with earbuds worsened significantly in 68 percent of cases. This means two out of every three who wear earbuds while cycling cannot hear sirens, automobiles honking or cars whizzing by them in traffic.

However, the study did find that listening to music with a single earbud—keeping one ear free of any distracting noise—did not affect a cyclist's auditory perception. In other words, if the act of pedaling without your jams is a ghastly activity that you refuse to perform, and you'd just assume not cycle if you can't simultaneously listen to Taylor Swift, limit your Top 40 shuffle to one ear only.

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"But I Love Taylor Swift. Isn't There a Way I Can Listen to Her with Both Ears?"

Headphone and earbud technology has rapidly developed in the past few years. With noise-canceling headphones all the rage among audiophiles and music aficionados, listening to music when you're out and about has become an increasingly isolating experience. A building can seemingly explode a block away, and the headphone-wearing podcast junkie won't flinch a muscle.

Why? Because he or she didn't hear it.

It's safe to assume that these headphones, which grant its wearers temporary deafness from the outside world, are not safe for two-wheel travel. However, in addition to technology making the music listening experience more isolated, it's gone the other way, too.

New headphones exist that allow wearers to listen to music while remaining cognizant of exterior noise. Called bone-conduction headphones, these devices work by playing soundwave vibrations on top of your temporal bone.

The temporal bone, located on the sides of your skull, houses all structures that allow you to hear. The headphones bypass your eardrum and transmit music directly into your ear's innermost part, allowing you to jam and pedal in safety. And, you have your choice of several bone-conduction headphones currently on the market.

This is the happy median. A place where Republicans and Democrats get along, orcs and elves dance in the night, and cyclists can listen to music and pedal along in complete safety. Ditch the headphones, the earbuds and the dangerous stunt of cycling while deaf, and get yourself some bone-conduction headphones.

More: How to Become a Year-Round Cycling Fan

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