An ear on the traffic


Who hears more of the traffic buzz—a driver using his in-car music system or a bike rider using an iPod and earphones? Simon Vincett and Stephen Huntley went seeking evidence.

On a busy arterial road, cars and trucks surge past in jostling packs. The occasional coach and tram add to the din and motorbikes screech through gaps. Bike riders belt along the bike lane. The waves of noise ebb and flow. This is the urban soundscape.

We visited this busy road to test how much of this soundscape is deadened by wearing earphones while you ride, and as an interesting comparison, how it compares to car drivers using their music systems.

On our test street (St Kilda Road, Melbourne) the waves of noise peaked at about 80 decibels (dB). Our test car (Nissan X-Trail 2005) was parked on the same street.

We were equipped with a decibel meter and a synthetic model ear specifically created for us by our regular collaborator at RMIT Industrial Design, Dr Scott Mayson. The ear was designed to fit the decibel meter in the back and earphones in the front.

It was immediately obvious that the type of earphones used make a big difference to what is heard. The ear-bud type that come with an iPod, and that sits in the outside of the ear canal, let in more outside noise than the in-ear type that plugs into the ear canal.

With the ear-bud in our synthetic ear but not playing music, we measured the ambient traffic noise at 79dB. With the in-ear earphones, the traffic noise was 71dB.

We also quickly established that cars are remarkably soundproof. We measured the average peak of ambient traffic noise inside the car (with the motor running) to be 54dB, which is 26dB quieter than outside the car. We rang a bike bell right outside an open car window and measured it from in the car at 105dB. With the window closed, the same bell registered just 57dB.

Using our own taste as a guide, we established that a reasonable volume for listening to music through our earphones while riding at our location was three clicks down from the maximum volume of our iPod, which turned out to be 87dB; greater than the average peak of the ambient noise.

We then set up with testers 10 metres apart. One called out “Passing”, then rang a bike bell, and neither registered on the decibel meter above the ambient noise. Despite this, when a tester put the ear-bud earphones in and played music at 87dB, they could clearly hear their fellow tester’s call out, and the ringing of the bike bell.

The call and bell could also be heard with the in-ear earphones, but only faintly.

What was startling, however, was what could be heard from the car with its stereo on at what was perceived as a moderate level; (69dB). Our driver was unable to hear our tester, stationed 10 metres away, calling out “Passing”, or the bike bell. Without the car stereo on it was just possible to hear the call and bell; it registered at a similar level to having the in-ear headphones in.


Based on these relatively simple tests, it is fair to conclude that:

  1. In-ear earphones on the left and ear bud earphones on the right

    A bike rider with ear-bud earphones playing music at a reasonable volume hears much more outside noise than a car driver, even when that driver has no music playing.

  2. A bike rider with in-ear earphones playing music at a reasonable volume hears about the same outside noise as a car driver with no music playing, but more than a car driver playing music.
  3. Ear-bud earphones set at a reasonable volume still allow riders to clearly hear the warning sounds of other riders.

The set-up

Test location: St Kilda Road, Melbourne

Time: Thursday 2–4pm

Car: Nissan X-Trail 2005

Music: “Lust for life” Iggy Pop

All measurements were made in dBA.

A bit about decibels

Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale and can’t be simply added and subtracted. Here’s a guide to the decibels of familiar sounds:

0dBA              the softest sound you can hear

20dBA           a whisper

50dBA           rainfall

60dBA           ordinary speaking

90dBA           a lawn mower

110dBA         a rock concert


Here’s an interview about this article with the ABC radio program, The Sunday Spin

Music for surgery

Ninety per cent of surgeons in the UK perform operations to music, The Guardian reported in September 2011. An earlier study found that listening to self-selected music leads to decreased stress and increased performance for experienced surgeons who like to listen to music while operating.  However, novice surgeons performed less well when listening to music.

For a review of headphones for running see Gizmodo

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One thought on “92”

  1. Great idea for a test. I use the standard type headphones without the sound turned up too high. Mainly on early rides in the cold. They keep the cold out of your ear and still let ambient sounds in. I am keen to see the results. As a side note I nice the odd driver using headphones when driving I can’t imagine they would hear any outside noise.

  2. I used to worry about earphones but I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter very much. I do mostly listen to podcasts and there is a lot of silent spaces in speech compared to music. But even if it was music, I don’t think it would make anything significantly different for me. Most roads that I’m stuck riding on, car traffic is far too fast for it to make any difference. By the time I would hear them, they are already barrelling past me at 60+ km/hr. Better to keep looking behind and maintain my intended road position. Hearing them honk or not also doesn’t matter since their annoyance about me being in front of them is their problem not mine.

    The whole issue is a bit of a red herring anyways, a way to shift blame. I know I wasn’t paying attention when I ran over them, but they were listening to music/not wearing hi-viz/not wearing a helmet/in my way/etc so it was totally their own fault.

  3. Why don’t more people ride with just one earbud in? You can hear pretty much everything but you still have the entertainment and energy from your music. There’s earbuds called One Good Ear (I think) which are designed to filter all the left/right sounds into a single earbud. Seems like the best solution.

    1. That’s exactly what I do! I have an ipod nano glued to my helmet and a short corded earbud. Curbside Blues for the win!

  4. I think this is a stupid idea. How about we get two driving a car not listening to music, one riding a bike listening to music and make them crash into each other, the winner is the person who survives.
    Safety when riding is paramount and the only person who loses in bike/car accidents is the cyclist. Music covers up sound and distracts, if this article has convinced you to listen to music when cycling then this is the quite possibly the worst cycling article I’ve ever read.

    1. Can a cardriver be distactet by music?
      I don´t know if you have kids, but I would like to have my kids growing up where they can run, bike on a bicycle, where I don´t have to be afraid that they get killed by a car. To make it illegally to drive a bicycle with music in the ears does not change that. I also would like my kids to breathe air without to many particles from cars. Scientific experts now believe USA faces an epidemic of illnesses that are exacerbated by air pollution. These illnesses include cardiovascular disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and diabetes. The bicycle happens to be a wery concrete tool to drastic improve our childrens health and life quality. The bicycle is also a way to fight obese. The cars are driving fast and most parent are afraid to let there children travel in other ways than the norm (cars). If we could lover the speed limmit for cars, make better facility’s for pedestrians and bicyclists, our children would live longer and have a better life!
      Your statement is wery similar to the concept of “Jaywalking”…put all the responsibility on the pedestrians and bicyclists.
      PS. Does the word “Jay-driving” exist?

    2. Stephen Lloyd….spot on correct, squire! London is an effin’ dangerous place to ride, and I want all my faculties trained on what’s happening around me. And if I were Transport Minister, I’d outlaw car radio-stations except for traffic and weather reports. DISTRACTIONS CAUSE ACCIDENTS.

    3. How many distracted pedestrians have stepped blindly into the road ahead of me while listening to their mobile phones? Over the years, probably a hundred and it’s getting worse. Voices on the phone? Lyrics in the music? What’s the diff? They are both taking our attention away from the job in hand, which is keeping ourselves–and others–safe on the streets.

  5. Sorry but I am a cyclist and used to use earphones daily… I do not wear them any longer.
    Ride On states that they find that “ear-bud earphones set at a reasonable volume still allow riders to clearly here the warning sounds of other riders.” yes a probable fact but in doing this they are promoting the activity of earphone use while cycling. I hold that travel is an interactive activity and the addition of audio-entertainment to the activity is dangerous. Whether in a car, bike or by foot the use of earphones inhibits the potential for interaction with the world. Yes this could lead to potential incident with other road users but more importantly it leads to an insular, individualistic culture and zombie like tendencies. It leads to us and them and not humanity…

    1. I agree. i would never ride with ear-buds/phones in. (doesn’t help that I’m deaf in one ear). Just don’t see why you make the ride more dangerous that it needs to be. The conclusion drawn by the study is quit irresponsible.

    2. Yep, I agree, I also don’t see the need to wear earphones for ‘entertainment’ when cycling.. Geez, if you find it that boring, why are you doing it? and if you are bored, you’re probably not paying enough attention. The ride itself is entertainment enough for me, if I get a little bored, I’ll shake it up a bit and ride down a backroad and do some gutter jumps 😛

  6. All well and good, but I’m not sure how relevant the comparison is?

    I listen to music when I’m driving, but would never dream of using headphones when I’m riding in traffic, as I do on my commute in to central London.


    When I’m in the car, I’ve got various mirrors to help me see what’s around me, and, especially in heavy commuting traffic, I’m very unlikely to be pulling in and out of traffic lanes.

    On the bike, on the other hand, I have no mirrors, so rely far more on my sense of hearing. I can’t just flick my eyes sideways to see what’s behind me, I have to rotate my whole head. Equally, I’m far more likely to be edging out of cycle lanes into car lanes to overtake slower cyclists. This requires me to be far more aware of my surroundings far more often than I am when sticking to a single line of traffic.

      1. Can’t say that I agree with you Jules. I am quite happy for everybody to have their opinion on the wearing of earphones and if they don’t work for you then don’t wear them. However, I wear them every time I commute and I don’t believe that they affect my safety on the road. I am not sure about you but even when I am riding without earphones in I will never pull out into the road or do any sort of manoeuvre without visually checking that it is OK to do so – I believe that to do otherwise would be dangerous and unsafe and I can’t imagine reacting on the bike based on sound alone!!

        Let’s say that a cyclist is riding along the road (without earphones) and sitting their usual distance away from the gutter. They hear a car approaching from behind – as far as I am concerned, they should not take any action other than to maintain their distance from the gutter and keep riding. I certainly don’t believe that they should move in closer to the gutter every time that they hear a car approaching (please note that I am not advocating riding in the middle of the lane all of the time either although sometimes this is warranted depending on traffic conditions). So what is the difference between hearing them and not hearing them – in either case I believe that the rider should do the same thing (i.e. continue riding).

        I also noted in one of the comments above that somebody mentioned they were deaf in one ear – b By stating that the wearing of earphones is unsafe, would that also mean that someone who is completely deaf shouldn’t ride on the road? I am not trying to put words in your mouth but I am trying to look at the other side of the argument. I don’t for a minute think that the wearing of earphones while riding makes me any less safe on the roads (for myself or for those around me). We all need to make decisions in life and if earphones don’t work for you then don’t wear them, but please don’t judge others for wearing them and accuse them of being unsafe.

        It’s interesting to note that I wore earphones for my 20 km each way commute for nearly 7 years – the only time that I ever got hit by a car was one day that I actually wasn’t wearing them on the way home from work due to my batteries going flat. A guy ran through a stop sign and T-boned me from the left on Wellington Road in Collingwood (broad daylight, sunny day) – go figure!!!

      2. Jules –

        YOU are the one inferring (incorrectly) that Ride On is saying it is OK to ride with headphones. I agree there is a mild implication of such, but the real take-home message is how deaf and unaware the drivers are… even without headphones. And those drivers are driving weapons.

    1. Your experience is not universal, however. There are certainly cyclists with mirrors out their, either on the handlebars, helmet, or both — by your logic, and by the measurements presented here, it should be fine for such people to use earbuds. They can hear better than windows-up drivers, AND they have mirrors.

      Your point about overtaking is half-right — clearly, you are more rapid than average, but just as clearly there are people who are less rapid than average. If they’re generally not overtaking, then your concerns there are not an issue for them. In addition, any car that is overtaking you while you are overtaking someone else, is (I think) committing a traffic infraction (not that I expect to see it enforced, but that’s how I understand the law).

      There is the additional issue where you seem to implicitly assume that it is okay for drivers to render themselves half-deaf, despite the danger that their choice of vehicle imposes on others, yet it is not okay for cyclists to render themselves 1/3 deaf, even though they are relatively harmless to others. We can, if we wish, choose to take the nanny-state approach that assumes that people don’t know how to take care of themselves (as opposed to regulating behavior that endangers others), but in that case, I think we should discourage the behavior with the 39% higher mortality rate — that would be commuting in automobiles.

    2. Sorry, but as a fellow UK inner-city rush-hour rider, you’re risking an early grave by relying on your ears to tell you when it’s safe to move across the road. You mention the solution yourself – turn your whole head!

      I often ride (or drive) without listening to the traffic & travel but sometimes with. If anything, I’d have to argue that I’m technically safer when I’ve got headphones on because I check visually much more often. (That is, I catch myself from time to time pulling out without a shoulder check when I’m bare-eared). It would be fascinating to know what proportion of bare-eared riders pull out into the main traffic flow on a wing and a prayer without a visual check, versus those who have background music on!

      I also don’t understand the idea that it’s somehow necessary to expose yourself to a barrage of random city noise to navigate the road safely. I defy anyone who hears an HGV behind them to work out whether it’s going to pass safely, drive straight over the top of them or come past and immediately turn left based on sound alone.

      Better to use your eyes to be aware of what’s going on around you than pretend your ears can manage.

    3. Good god, man. Why don’t you use a mirror on the bicycle? I’m amazed that it is legal to ride without a mirror… thus making yourself 1/2 blind on purpose. Yet it is illegal to ride with earbuds even though the rushing wind typically renders me deaf anyway. And it is legal to ride deaf. Crazy.

  7. Anyone notice the logical fallacy here, or does the last point in the “conclusions” section contain a typo of “riders” when the writer meant “drivers?”

    If it’s not a typo, that last point is totally untrue and is routinely evidenced during my daily commutes – people wearing headphones cannot hear me say “on your left” or my bell. I have no idea what volume they’re headphones are at or what they’re listening to but to me, no-response or being-startled-when-I-pass-them-anyway seems to indicate they can’t hear me.

    Also, this article presupposes that road users are actively listening for the faint sound of a bike bell amongst the cacophony of road noise. I find that quote a stretch of the imagination. I don’t wear headphones, I consider myself a fairly conscientious rider, and even I’m sometimes surprised by another cyclist overtaking me.

    1. Hi Erik, that’s no typo. What we found is that if a rider is listening to music at a reasonable volume with ear bud earphones they can hear the bell or call of another rider. We don’t assume active listening. The approx. 100dBA sound of a bell and it’s particular sound makes it quite distinct within a noisy traffic soundscape. As social animals, we’re also very good at picking up the human voice. These things seem to explain our findings.

  8. So, being able to hear the car accelerating behind you, or the truck coming close, and using your binaural ability to place that in relation to you and your trajectory on the bike – that’s immaterial, is it? That has no impact (sorry, bad pun) on your safety? Why not wear glasses that filter out the colour red?

    1. Note that the experiment measures a cyclist’s ability to hear, relative to accepted and common practice in automobiles. Most drivers do not wear glasses that filter out the color red — therefore there is no comparison to make, hence no experiment, hence no recommendation. That’s “why not”.

      I assume it is agreed that cars are dangerous (and if it is not agreed, it has been measured — they kill about 3000 pedestrians per year in the US, versus about 1 killed by cyclists), but that their danger has been reduced to an acceptable level. Standard practice for drivers must therefore be “safe”, right? I use no ear-anythings when I ride a bike because I like to hear all the same things that you do, but when I drive a car in residential areas, I try to always remember to roll down my windows, so I can hear better. It makes bikes safer, it makes cars safer too — but we have decided that level of safety is unnecessary for automobiles.

      Therefore, once we have measured that earbuds are less impairing, why is it not similarly acceptable to use those while riding a bicycle? A safety-conscious rider might not, just as a safety-conscious driver might roll down his windows, but it’s not common practice, and we don’t expect it, and we don’t tut-tut at drivers with their windows up and stereo on.

      You might choose to use nanny-state logic to point out that drivers are protected in other ways, therefore we need to mandate a higher level of safety for cyclists, and I am okay with nanny-state logic, as long as it is employed rationally, and defines safety broadly. You would not want to trade a small safety improvement in one activity for a large safety loss in another activity, right? Happily, we’ve measured the mortality rates (and expected lifespans) for people who ride bikes to work, and for people who do not, and the results are that crashes and all, riding a bike regularly (e.g., to work) is far safer than driving a car — the mortality rate is much higher (+39%) for the drivers, even after adjusting for risk factors (Danish study, ).

      The alternate conclusion from this study is obviously that if we think it is not okay for cyclists to wear headphones, then obviously (based on these measurements, based on pedestrian mortality figures, based on driver/cyclist lifetime mortality risk) drivers should not be allowed to have stereos in their cars, and they should not be allow to roll up their windows except during rain or snow storms. Furthermore, they should be required to wear helmets. None of this is pleasant, but it is not pleasant for cyclists, and we expect it for their safety, and cars are more dangerous both to other people AND TO THEIR OCCUPANTS, so it is acceptable to make the unsafe activity both safer for themselves (better protection through helmets) and to others (better able to hear surroundings and avoid collisions), and just plain less pleasant so less exposure occurs.

      Obviously, such requirements have a snowball’s chance of getting passed into law because a majority would oppose them vigorously, even though they would result in a significant reduction in early deaths. But it why would we then choose to enact nanny-state laws that effectively apply only to a tiny minority, have little or no effect, and actually reduce safety through their effect on public health (by making the safer activity less pleasant)? This is both discriminatory and irrational. Surely you are not in favor of discriminatory, irrational laws?

      1. Dr2Chase

        You talk about Nanny State a lot through this thread, just based on that, I would like to see a similar study done on helmets 🙂

        Also, if you honestly think it is a good idea for others to wear earbuds, why don’t you? your logic is one that also falters.

        I tried it for two days, this is what I found.
        I was more aggressive on the road because my music allowed me to ignore traffic.
        With my groove on I rode faster for no reason.
        I was not social, and I missed that, I like talking to fellow riders.
        I found that not hearing things around me made me feel more nervous by day 2 morning
        Day 2 night I didnt do it, I missed the journey, if you really need to listen to music when you ride, then drive your car, at least that way you wont be in my way in another world when I try to overtake you in lala land in the bike lane.

      2. In my opinion it is not a good idea to wear earbuds while cycling, so I do not. Others are free to make their own choices, because bicycles are mostly harmless and their riders bear the consequences of their actions, and overall, choosing to ride a bicycle is so much safer than the usual alternative (driving a car) that quibbling about a minor increase in crash risk is just not worthwhile.

        It is a worse idea to drive your car around people (pedestrians, bicycles) with the windows up and/or the music on loud, because you reduce your ability to hear what is going on (and you can hear). Others should NOT be free to make this choice, because cars are NOT mostly harmless, and careless drivers often do not suffer the consequences of their actions. HOWEVER, we’ve decided that this is okay; because we have decided that this much more dangerous thing that imposes risk on other people is okay, that makes me even more certain that worrying about bicycle earbuds is indeed pointless.

        I wear a helmet while cycling because it is safer for me (or so I think — it is my decision, right?). However, helmet laws for cyclists are a bad idea because they lead to a net increase in early deaths (because they discourage cycling, which is very healthy, much more so than the crash risk). I DO think that helmets should be required for people in cars, because car crashes are a significant cause of head injuries, and because the inconvenience is smaller than requiring helmets of cyclists (no sweaty head), and because it leads to a reduction in early deaths (because there is no health benefit from driving a car; in fact, there is a large cost).

        In short, I advocate for those positions that I think will lead to a reduction in early deaths, based on as much information as I can find, and I advocate against those positions that I think are merely minority-bashing and victim-blaming.

  9. I think the conclusion is that a bell or simply shouting are not valid safety notification systems and need to be replaced with items that work.

  10. Riding a bicycle is about risk management, by reducing the effectiveness of one of your protective factors you increase your risk factors. Given that little research exists why present the argument at all and potentially put some impressionable and trusting riders at risk. This article may provide users of ear phones with a justification, from a “reputable” organisation, to continue an unsafe practice.

    Lastly you may not be aware of two recent fatalities where joggers wearing eye buds were killed when hit by trains.

  11. I never have headphones on when I ride on the road. My theory is, I’m safe as long as I know where everyone is. Hearing a car cruising up behind you (particularly a hybrid model, which make next to no engine noise) can only be done with full hearing available.

    I wouldn’t risk it in traffic just to hear a few tunes. I save the fire up music for riding ergos at home!

  12. I use open headphones. That is, with a foam pad between them and the ears. They seem more effective than either type tested, yet I only use them on charity rides on closed or semi-closed roads, not on commuting or on other long road rides

  13. So what are you seeing to gain from this article? If it is to defend riders safely operating while wearing earphones you are clearly on the wrong track. How many times have you had a runner/walker with phone/iPod on, walk across your path cometely oblivious to thief surroundings. Once again a cyclists how can we be frustrated and vocal about one groups behaviors and then tacitly condone the same behavior in an even more dangerous environment?

  14. Common on. I’m a bike rider but also have a brain. Ear noise like iPods is simply another safety distraction and, frankly, if you need to listen to music while enjoying the freedom of a bike ride then perhaps a tram or walking is a better option for you. We do need to take some responsibility for our own safety!

  15. There is a basic problem with comparing the driver and the rider, ie the driver is surrounded by a fortress of metal and plastic and driving is a visual process, sound is largely irrelevant to determining driving decisions in a car. On the other hand cyclists are frighteningly vulnerable and need to maximise all their senses in order to survive in an essentially hostile environment. I think that any opinion asserting that cyclists can afford to not give all the attention of all their senses to survival is irresponsible.

    1. You’re wrong three different ways. First, you act as if the only responsibility were for one’s own safety, and to heck with everyone else. That’s not the usual definition of responsibility, and a car is so much heavier and faster than a bicycle that this care-for-others dominates. Second, I in fact DO drive my car with the windows down precisely because it bothers me to not be able to hear what is going on around me. I ride a bike often, and the silence of windows-up driving in busy places is creepy-scary. Third, if we are going to worry about others’ actions and tell them what to do to be safer, the larger risk of death (and it has been measured) comes from NOT riding a bicycle (for lack of exercise, and the amount you get commuting and running errands on a bike is large, much more than an hour at the gym each week). All this gnashing of teeth about cyclists with partially impaired hearing is innumerate pearl-clutching; the big killer comes from driving the car. It’s more dangerous for the drivers, and for everyone else.

  16. I’ll admit upfront that I’m a car driver and I don’t own a bicycle anymore, and my purpose in being part of Bicycle Victoria/Australia is to learn what hazards cyclists come across so that I can share the road with them safely. (I do hope to join the cycling community someday, but until I live closer than 50km to my workplace, I’m afraid it’s just not a viable option.)

    I think there’s a simple fact that is being missed in this entire article: there is no requirement (that I know of) to be able to hear in order to be able to drive. When being licensed to drive a vehicle, you must pass a sight test, but not a hearing one.
    Yes, being able to hear is an advantage. But ultimately if a driver or cyclist, regardless of their hearing ability, is not paying attention to other road users and the potential hazards around them, then it makes the road a lot more dangerous place for everyone.

    I drive on a lot of roads with cycling lanes, and many other roads without, but I look over my shoulder before turning corners to make well sure I’m not going to cross a cyclist’s path. When I see a cyclist up ahead, I check to see if I can navigate around them safely – and if I can’t, I’ll slow down and drive at the same pace as them until I can. If I can pass safely, I will keep track of where that cyclist is for as long as I can see them on the road to ensure that if they need to pass me because I’m stuck at a set of red lights then they can do so.

    None of this is because I can hear them or that I hear other vehicle drivers – it’s all based on attentiveness and sight.

    1. All I can say is *Thank you* for understanding the main point here, and for paying attention. I can’t believe how many have missed the point here. Well done.

      1. Yes Darell, You dont need to hear what is around you in a car, for gods sake, you are protected by a ton of metal. If you want to be aware of what is around you on a bike (vulnerable road users), then please consider not using an iPod. By the way, does anyone know how to get their MP3 player to 87dB? No? yeah, well I guess that is why I pass people with their music so loud I can bop along beside them. In our own tests, you can not hear a person saying passing as they ride behind someone on St Georges Rd bike path. And seriously, how many people have bells on their bikes.

        Riding is a social thing, turn the damn thing off and say “Hello” the the rider beside you. You never know who it might be.

  17. My how seriously we take outselves. I’ve been riding a bicycle for nearly 30 years and had one accident, (the car missinterperted where I was going).
    When I cycle near parked cars I ride slower and if I’m wearing earphones in traffic I turn them down. RIDE TO THE CONDITIONS PEOPLE. Its the basic fundamentals of survival.

  18. I was in an accident recently on a mini roundabout. The car driver went round the wrong way on the island and crossed my path so I hit the side of his car.
    Initially he said it was his fault, but now he has gone back on that. Why?

    Because he said I was not looking where I was going and had my ipod on, even though when he went to get his details from his car he also had his music on. Ok for him to do but not ok for me.

    The thing is I did not have the ipod turned on or the earbuds in my ears at the time, they were tucked in around the straps of my helmet just in case I wanted to listen to some music later on my ride.

    So is this a get out clause when a motorist is at fault?

  19. Barking up the wrong tree Ride On. It’s not a question of whether it’s better to be riding with your i-phone headset on or driving with the car stereo on – it’s a question of not encouraging at risk behaviours. As a commuting cyclist who rides on bike-only and shared paths, I see daily evidence of how much i-phones reduce the awareness of riders, runners and walkers of their surroundings. I now scan other riders, runners and walkers for tell-tale signs of ear-phones, in the same way that I scan cars parked on the side of the road for signs of drivers potentially just about to open doors.

    1. I agree. A better approach would be to encourage cyclists to have mirrors to increase their situational awareness. Looking around is OK provided you do it all the time. Every car driver knows – or should know – that they need to be aware of what is happening behind them and around them all the time – not just when they need to change lanes, overtake or turn. The same applies to cyclists.

      My main problem with ipods etc is with pedestrians (including joggers) on shared paths. It is very difficult to get their attention from behind.

  20. Its a valid study and of course many people will challenge it or applaud it.
    I’m half deaf to start with and find the extra wind noise created by ear buds annoying but others will not.
    I still enjoy playing a piano but that won’t work on a bike…

  21. In my opinion, only an idiot would ride with earphones of any kind! A bicycle rider just needs to hear more than a Car driver does. Besides, I want to hear all that is going around me and enjoy being outside in nature!

  22. There certainly is a typo in the last point in the conclusions section, but not relating to drivers or cyclists – ‘here’ is used instead of ‘hear’!

  23. Ninety per cent of surgeons in the UK operate to music, the Guardian reported last September, leading to decreased stress and increased performance. Link added to article above.

      1. We thought the point was self-evident, Phil. A common argument against riding while listening to music is that the rider will become lost in the music, and will not be concentrating on what is going on around them. So one of the many questions in this debate is, does the playing of music lead to a loss of concentration. The fact that most surgeons, who must work with great concentration and precision, prefer to have music playing in the background while operating, is therefore a relevant counter-argument.

      2. I think Phil’s point is relevant also though, and no one thinks you will get lost in the music when you are riding because you are on a road. Phil’s point is you don’t have to be constantly looking over your shoulder in a surgery. You still suggest riding with headphones is OK, I still pose the question of how do you educate the noise level safe to be using.

        But besides all of that, I will continue not to talk to riders with headphones on, as riders didn’t talk to me during the days I tried it out. I will not yell out to a rider I can see with headphones on that I am overtaking, and I will not wear headphones myself on roads. This is not good journalism, but it is a good feed.

        I can also tell you right now, the riders with Headphones on during your ride events like around the bay are the most dangerous, oblivious and reckless riders. This does not encourage safe and inclusive riding, it encourages individualism and antisocial behaviour, if you are going to do it, feel free to drive.

      3. But if you are constantly looking over your shoulder, does it matter whether you can hear or not? I check the mirrors of my car without needing to hear people passing me at much higher speeds on multi-lane roads, I can check the mirror on my recumbent (or look around on my other bikes) whether I can hear that electric car or faster rider behind me or not.

        The majority of my riding is done without music because I can’t be bothered with the hassle of having wires dangling off me, but I don’t feel like the constant noise of traffic is useful in any way.

        In fact, sometimes I catch myself having pulled out into the road around a parked car without looking, relying on the fact that I can hear nothing (not reliable!) whereas I would never do so with headphones on, because that assumption isn’t available.

        As countless pros and serious amateurs ride with music, it seems like an unsupportable assertion that riders with headphones are “the most dangerous, oblivious and reckless” – although I imagine it’s easy to remember examples if you have a strong enough confirmation bias?

  24. Finally someone writes a good article about the obvious (to me) fact that wearing headphones while biking is no more dangerous than listening to the radio while driving. Sure I rely on hearing more on a bike than in a car, but even with headphones I hear outside noises MUCH better. In fact, on a busy road I pretty much can’t hear what’s coming through the headphones because of traffic noise. So what exactly am I missing by wearing headphones??

    1. Well, I can tell you what you’re missing, because I tried riding with headphones and it freaked me out. I’m accustomed to keeping track of what’s going on around me that I can hear, and I habitually listen for oncoming traffic. I can hear stuff coming that I can’t see. I did try mirrors a couple of times, and those did not work for me at all — always jostled out of alignment, and if I tried to look at them I would spend several seconds not looking forward while I tried to figure out what I was looking at.

      However, anyone wants to ride with headphones on, that is okay with me. A bike is not that dangerous to other people. Driving a great big heavy car with the windows up is something else entirely; it’s irresponsible to present that much potential harm to other people, yet compromise your ability to see and hear what is going on.

  25. Thanks to BNV for doing the research. It’s always good for a person to have facts and figures to support their argument, whichever side of the fence they’re on.

  26. Good article. I think the decision to ride and listen to music depends on your riding skill.Don’t judge others decisions based on your ability. It is ridiculous to say we should just avoid all risk.

  27. So, what is the measurement for distraction?

    And I like the suggestion that a car run up behind the ear-bud wearing cyclist and ‘tap’ his wheel.
    Veloaficionado 11 July, 2012 12:32 pm

    Not being able to hear the cars acceleration around you is a factor.
    Can you test with an open speaker from the handle bar rack instead of ear-buds?

    And in my experience, people and cyclist turn up their ipods far too loud–if we can hear it outside beside you, it is too loud.

    1. Lets fight for making the roads safer for our kids, not for some stupid earplugs, cause that won´t do anything for making our roads a safer place. Lets have lower speed limits for cars, bikepaths, chicanes for cars etc, I´m not afraid my kids will be killed by bicyclists with music in their ears, but I can be worried that one day, some fast car might kill them!

      A bicycle is a great tool for fighting obese with children, they can actually go to school by using their own power! Cars emission is a great treat to our kids health and lives:

      Lets not fight against earplugs, lets fight for a better life quality for our kids.

  28. Great post – love the research. My personal preference is not to listen to anything while riding, to keep maximum concentration on the road – but others will vary. Pretty alarming to hear that a car driver can “only just” hear a bike bell even with no music playing.

    1. Steve B.,
      Yes, the only advntge of a bell is that it sounds inoffensive, and doesn’t wind people up, but seeing as my safety is more important than not winding up dozy pedestrians on the mobile or i-plod or other d-vices, I’m probably going to purchase something called a “HORNIT”, which although I haven’t heard one, is supposed to be shockingly loud.
      So the inattentive drivers and jay-walkers will get a shock….good. Hornits are expensive, but so are collisions. And no, I don’t have shares in the company.

      1. If it’s anything like an AirZound, it’s just plain too damn loud. I had one of those once, and accidentally blew it off behind a jogger, and I was mortified. It allows you to unintentionally be a total asshole, in much the same way that driving a car turns you into a clueless noisy smelly clumsy dangerous oaf (“Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You!”) When the tubing on my horn decayed from UV exposure and fell apart (newer models have fixed this), I did not replace it.

        I use daytime running lights instead, and in a pinch, I can yell really loud. A helmet spot at night doesn’t hurt. Beyond that, I watch out, and try to avoid trouble.

  29. [[[[[[[[ Yes, dr2chase, and my Airzound sounded like a barge on a river—more puzzling than warning. People around me would peer about, heads going every which way, but never in my direction! And after 8 months it mysteriously died, so I chucked it.
    And yes, loud horns MUST be used selectively, or you make a twit of yourself, as when using the horn on the car, or when barking at folks when cycling…..anything from “Pssst!” to “OY! WAKE UP YOU PLONKER!!”. Just yesterday a car pulled out of a side-road straight across my front wheel like I didn’t exist—I had to slam the brakes on. If I were to ride out of a side-road in front of a car-driver, I’d certainly get an ear-full of car-horn, and rightly so…..

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  31. This article omits the biggest fact of all: the driver in the car is not going to die if there is a collision with a bike. The bicyclist is. One of these two needs every single piece of information that is possible. For life preservation. Get the difference?

    But hey, go ahead manufacture all the justification for headphones that you want. Just dont pretend it’s science. Even the lowest most primitive animal has enough sense that it would never do anything to REDUCE its sense of hearing when in danger. Maybe humans aren’t as smart as they believe.

    1. If humans were smart, they never would have thought of the private automobile for private transportation. Remove that from the equation, and even deaf cyclists are safe!

  32. I need to do a test with a product I am coming out with and the unit used for this test would be perfect. How can I get in touch with Simon Vincett and Stephen Huntley to discuss.

  33. After all is said and done, this whole process fails due to one unique and yet required test that was not performed. How loud people actually had their earphones to begin with. The number of times I have ridden beside someone to let them know I am passing but yet get abused for scaring them because they didn’t see me is now getting ridiculous.

    The real test is about how loud some one has it, and how good their hearing is, what they are listening to, and whether or not talking or a bell will sound like part of the audio background.

    I still say you are misleading riders to using something that is potentially dangerous, and you need to think of the consequences of collisions between cyclists overtaking. Whether it is between pedestrians or other cyclists, if you can not hear what is happening, you have lost a vital sense.

  34. Whether you’re on a bicycle or not, you shouldn’t keep your earbuds at 87dB. Sustained exposure to noise of 85dB and louder leads to noice-induced hearing loss.

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