A thumping beat can help you turn your cranks, even when you're starting to tire. But is it safe—and legal—to listen to music while riding outdoors?
Motivation vs. Distraction
Although no conclusive study has proven beyond a doubt that music is motivating while cycling, there is data supporting music as a great motivator during physical exertion.
Would you send your mother or daughter or sister out on a bike while listening to music? What about your younger brother or son? Keep in mind that cyclists are vulnerable, and many divers are distracted, impatient and just plain hostile to everyone and everything around them.
Entertainment vs. Environmental
Does the sound of your heartbeat in your ears while climbing a really tough hill or the whistle of wind through your helmet while you bomb a descent make you want to go harder and faster compared with listening to your favorite playlist? There's definitely a thrill of being outside and immersed in the moment, with the natural sounds of going somewhere as motivation in and of itself.
Indoors vs. Outdoors
If you're riding indoors and you want some extra motivation in the middle of an ascent of the Alpe du Zwift, fire up the EDM! But riding outdoors is a completely different experience: You're not locked into a trainer in the safety of your pain cave. On the road you'll face obstacles and unpredictable challenges, requiring your immediate attention.
Urban vs. Rural
Riding solo on country roads with minimal traffic and only the sound of your own breathing can get monotonous. So maybe a Pandora station can make the miles go by more quickly. But if you're in an urban environment, cars and trucks can come up on you rather quickly with little warning, so you need to be able to hear traffic approaching from the rear with as much notice as possible.
Open Road vs. Dedicated Path
If you're lucky enough to have access to a dedicated, multi-use path that is closed to motor traffic, throw on some tunes. But be aware of any other cycling traffic that may be approaching from behind; being able to hear overtaking traffic can be crucial to your safety. You might want to consider leaving the earbuds at home, so you can hear what's going on behind you.
To be safe on a bike, you need three of your five senses at all times. You need to be able to feel the road conditions and how you bike moves on them, you need to be able to see what's ahead of you and you need to be able to hear what's going on all around you.
Group Riding Etiquette
Are you a solo rider on quiet roads, or are you riding with a group? If the former, you're responsible for yourself. If you're in with other riders, you'll need to be attentive to calls for turns, slowing and stopping, and any upcoming obstacles. You're responsible for others' safety as well as your own. Any distractions or impairments to hearing what's going on around you could be disastrous. So listening to music while riding in a group is definitely a no-go.
Safety of Others
While riding, you have a responsibility for controlling your bike so as not to encroach on others' safety and well-being. If you don't know what's going on around you at all times, you may be putting others at risk.
If You Must
If you do ride with headphones, consider using just the right one while leaving your left ear open to hearing any motor traffic approaching from the rear and passing on the left, as well as other cyclists approaching from behind.
Bone-conductive headphones, which don't cover your ears, may be an option for listening to music while riding. Or a Bluetooth speaker paired with your mobile device will allow you to hear your favorites tunes and your surroundings, as long as you don't have the volume dialed to 11.
Correlation Is Not Causation
Not everyone who listens to music while riding is jeopardizing their personal safety. Likewise, not all who ride in silence are safe. Every time you ride, consider where you'll be riding and what challenges you'll likely face before making judgements and conclusions about your safety and the safety of others when listening to music.
A Numbers Game
In virtually all areas, the incidence of distracted driving resulting in collisions and fatalities continues to increase. It seems that everyone is multitasking while operating a car. If you want to cycle defensively and be safe while ridingoutdoors, you need to be able to hear your surroundings.
Weigh the Costs and Benefits
Every time you ride outside you have to make a decision: Is some audio motivation at the cost of the additional response time afforded by being able to hear anyone approaching from behind a worthy trade-off?
Make Your Own Decisions
Before you conclude that you have a right to listen to music while riding your bike outdoors, research your local motor vehicle laws. Ordinances governing the operation of motor vehicles may also apply to you while you're riding your bike; the use of headphones or devices that could distract from driving may be prohibited.
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