DJ on the Bike – More Tickets?

Caught in Amsterdam by the Prudent Cyclist on flickr

As a follow up to Elizabeth’s article on TWB (Texting While Biking) I have always wondered about Biking With Headphones (BWH)!  There are several methods of executing the BWH for bike commuters.  Some wear equipment that would be impossible to wear with a helmet (perhaps they are commuting to their job as jackhammer/leafblower testing facility), some use tiny earbuds, and there’s always the one-in and one-out set up.  I’ve tried commuting before with one-in and one-out earbud shenanigans with my crappy ibroke, but I usually ended up shoving it in a side pocket and singing out loud instead.  Like acapella karaoke commuting.

But Holy Moly Me Oh My, Montreal police have taken steps towards “enforcing” the no BWH laws as described by this article from July 2011, titled Cyclists Warned that Headphones Illegal in Quebec. The article cited that in 2010, the police ticketed 296 cyclists for this infraction.  At a price of $52 (Canadian) per ticket, that’s a whole lotta cash for poutine!

At least the cops are on their bikes, right?

Quebec’s highway safety code prohibits riding a bicycle while wearing a personal stereo headset or earphones. It’s the only Canadian jurisdiction where it’s illegal to ride while listening to headphones.

In the U.S., Florida and Rhode Island have made it illegal to use headsets while cycling. California, Maryland and Delaware also regulate use of headphones or earbuds. In those states, cyclists must leave one ear uncovered while riding.

…Police will continue to warn cyclists about the hazards of riding with earphones in July and expect to start handing out more tickets in August…Police said Wednesday that headphones make it more difficult for a cyclist to be aware of their surroundings as they move through traffic and pedestrians.

Oregon attempted to pass a similar bill HB 2602 that would fine cyclists using headphones a whopping $90!  No dice in passing the bill just yet according to

Then there’s the California Legislation where riding with one headphone is okay, but two will put you in the hole for $189 according to the Davis Wiki Bicycling Tips. Or there’s this girl who’s found a loophole:

Anyway bike commuters, whaddya think?  People drive cars and listen to their stereos all the time while stuck in traffic.  Plus cycling to music can be some good old fashioned fun.   Are headphones in the same “danger zone” as texting while cycling?  And, if so, does it warrant $189 fine?  I know the state is broke and all, but that’s a lot of In-n-Out cash right there.


  1. Steve A October 20, 2011 3:50 am 

    I did a blog post on this recently and ride with earphones every day. IMO, earphone laws are mostly a way for lefty, nanny-state governments to discriminate against cyclists and suck up some extra revenue. As noted above, listening to a car radio at ear-splitting volume is perfectly legal in each and every jurisdiction mentioned above. It is also legal to drive in each and every jurisdiction mentioned above if you are totally deaf.

    FWIW, I did have problems once with earphones. A Fort Worth policeman falsely told me they were illegal as he decided to harass me because he didn’t like the way I rode my bike.

  2. Deb October 20, 2011 4:05 am 

    Whenever people bring up headphones in the context of “they should not be allowed while riding a bike because you can’t hear traffic” it seems to me it’s similar to saying “riding a bike while deaf should not be allowed”. Which is ridiculous.

    And yet I bet there are not many deaf people riding bikes in this country, and I’d also bet that part of the reason is that we constantly tell everyone that it’s dangerous to ride if you can’t hear with at least one ear.

    And yet when you *are* riding in traffic there is so much noise you aren’t going to pick out individual cars or pedestrians. Sometimes one vehicle – a bus or a dump truck – will drown out every other noise around. So how exactly is that different than being deaf OR riding with headphones?

    Personally, I think that people should stop obsessing about what signals are or aren’t entering our ears. If the police and bike advocates are really worried about whether cyclists are aware of their surroundings (especially what’s going on in directions we are not facing), push rear view mirrors.

  3. Elizabeth October 20, 2011 5:04 am 

    I’m all for having at least one ear open to the sounds of the road — no matter how deafening they may be. For cyclists – especially those using the path or passing others – I appreciate hearing the “ding, ding” or “on your left” before someone zooms by me. I could just get a rearview mirror, but I’ve tried that set-up and I found it cumbersome until it finally just broke (and has not been replaced).

    Drivers do have the convenience of multiple rearview mirrors, so they should be fully conscious of their surroundings, regardless of how droned out or tuned out to music they may be.

  4. Ghost Rider October 20, 2011 5:25 am 

    I’ve long felt that hearing IS a crucial tool for bicyclists…no matter how loud the traffic noise, I can still pick out subtle details that help tell me what’s going on around/behind me.

    My personal feeling is that mirrors are just about useless. Knowing what’s behind me is so much less important than what is happening in front and to the sides of me. Even when I drive a car, I only use the rear view mirrors to check out the drivers behind me. Everything else gets a swiveled-head-check so I have a clear picture of the conditions around me.

    I’ve ridden with headphones and feel disconnected when I do. The one-earbud thing is annoying, too — I love music and hearing only one side of the stereo experience leaves me cold. One thing I have tried is the Tunebug Shake, which turns the inside of one’s helmet into a mini concert hall, all the while allowing you to hear the world around you.

  5. Ghost Rider October 20, 2011 5:29 am 

    SteveA — I mostly agree with your sentiments…headphone-wearing riders are pretty easy for the cops to spot and it’s a good source of additional revenue by way of citations.

    The “ear-splitting volume” part is sort of a tricky subject, though, as many municipalities have noise ordinances for motorists. I think the purpose of those ordinances are to prevent nuisances in residential areas, not as a tool to keep motorists humming along at a reasonable volume. I have known motorists who got ticketed for having their stereos too loud, however, but I am not sure exactly in what context those citations were handed out.

  6. Matt October 20, 2011 5:57 am 

    I don’t think it’s wise to ride with earphones in – I know that I depend on my ears a lot when I’m biking. When I ride in the winter, I’ll even remove ear coverings on particularly busy stretches of road so I can hear traffic better.

    Should it be illegal to ride with earphones? I don’t know – most of the texting while driving/hands-free type laws for motorists are designed to protect other people. Biking while wearing headphones would mostly be dangerous for the wearer, not for others.

  7. Michael P. October 20, 2011 6:24 am 

    I’ve do about 1500 miles per year commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan in NY and can’t imagine ever wanting to hamper my peripheral hearing by wearing headphones. Other commuters on bikes with headphones are a menace. They have zero situational awareness. Add to that the runners with their headphones and you have a safety problem.

    A good blog post on this topic is at

  8. Iron_Man October 20, 2011 6:31 am 

    I ride with and without headphones — without for the past year as I’ve been too cheap to replace the battery on my iPod. I’ve found that wind noise in the ears obscures road noise in my area and the speeds at which I ride. A mirror to me is of greater importance than relying on sound. I deal with mostly lightly trafficked roads on my commute, so auto noise stands out, but I’ve found that a car traveling away from me makes pretty much the same sound of tires on the pavement that cars coming towards me do. Most engines are whisper quiet these days. So I still have to check the mirror or turn my head to see if a car is approaching. Since I ride with a mirror, and check it routinely, I’m aware of cars approaching and have a good idea that they have seen me and are moving for a safe pass, because I can see that is what is happening. I don’t think I could hear a car making a safe pass though.

  9. Elizabeth October 20, 2011 6:45 am 

    For commuting, I rarely wear earphones…. for a longer ride (out on lightly traveled roads) I do like to listen to the beat of motivational music to keep me going… just enough distraction from what can become the humdrum (just as distracting) of a long day in the saddle. For my urban commutes, however, I don’t have time for such distraction. I should look into that speaker set-up, though, and rival the car stereos with my own stereo music :-)

  10. Mike Myers October 20, 2011 7:10 am 

    I use these :
    They’re “ear speakers” that sit over the tragus of the ear and direct the sound toward the ear canal. With them, I can hear my surroundings AND hear music. Sound quality is nowhere near audiophile quality, but they’re OK.

    I don’t know just how valuable hearing is while riding a bike. I use a mirror and stay aware of my surroundings. Motorcyclists are made functionally deaf by their helmets, wind noise, and engine noise, so I don’t see where my using headphones is any different.

    I wish more cyclists in my area looked like the woman in the first picture. That’s a surefire way to increase cycling.

  11. Bala October 20, 2011 7:55 am 

    I ride (and run) with earbuds (when I’m alone) and think it’s 100% okay, when done safely/correctly. I’m extremely aware of my surrounds visually, I don’t have the volume up loud, and I use a shuffle (no display to fiddle with) clipped to my shoulder strap and can pause my music quickly if needed. I can definitely still hear busses/cars/people while I ride. I also follow the traffic laws pretty much to the letter. Having a little background music on my commute or ride downtown makes it much more enjoyable.

    I do also think that there are some people that maybe shouldn’t as it would just be too distracting no matter what the volume, but that’s up to them. I’d compare it to driving with coffee or a snack in one hand. It’s not illegal, and there are people that are safe about it and don’t let it distract them, and there are others who can’t adjust the volume on their radio without swerving into oncoming traffic. It’s all about knowing your limits. If you can handle it and you feel safe, go for it. If you find it’s a distraction or you just don’t like it, don’t do it. I think it should be a personal choice (personal regulation might be more appropriate) not a legal question.

    Oh, and personally I find it way more distracting to have one earbud in than two. It makes me feel disoriented, I’d probably rather have none than one.

    On a side note, I think it’s a little “humorous” that in the blog mentioned by Michael above not a single rider pictured is wearing a helmet but the blogger doesn’t mention that.

  12. BluesCat October 20, 2011 7:58 am 

    I always wear a helmet, so headphones are out; and I cannot stand earbuds.

    My only beef with other riders, or pedestrians, wearing earbuds/headphones is they don’t hear me when I come up behind them. I have been known to roll up slowly behind such people and launch my best imitation of a slasher-flick victim scream … works every time to get their attention.

    One of my friends on another bike forum commented on this technique:
    “Bad, BC! Bad, Kitty! Bad, bad!”


  13. Bokchoi Cowboy October 20, 2011 8:00 am 

    I live in California and listen to music when I ride, mostly on my commute, but sometimes off-road (mood music). I am a former police officer so I am very intimate with the legal limitations of headphones and cycling. I tried various methods to listen, never satisfied with the sound or the blocking of my hearing of road noises that might keep me alive. It was almost as if you can pick one, safety and legal compliance VS enjoying music. You could not have both.

    I tried to use the speaker on my Android phone with the phone in a handlebar bag or in a phone holder located on my Camelback strap. This allowed me to hear the music, but not at a volume that wouldn’t get washed out completely by road noise. I also was not wanting to blare music and annoy others (never liked that, cant stand cars that play stereos too loud either).

    I tried the method of using just one earbud, but like another commenter here I did not like the half-sound that I got.

    I discovered a solution that was inexpensive and perfect for my music listening on the bike. Go to to see the solution to this music/cycling debacle.

    These are simply earphones with one earbud/speaker that has both stereo channels routed to it. I got the wrap-around style as that works best with my ears. You have a choice of left or right specific earphone, so I got the right-ear specific to leave the left ear (traffic side) completely open for safety and to be legally compliant.

    The one I got also has the telephone microphone inline with the cable. I have used this for several months on my commute, and have really enjoyed the music AND being able to hear everything from the cars when I am on the road, to an approaching racerboy roadie about to overtake me on his almost silent capet-fiber wonderbike, to being able to enjoy nature and a soundtrack while riding off-road.

    The telephone microphone is an added bonus that I have really enjoyed. When a call comes in, my phone pauses the music and lets me hear the ring in my earphone. I reach up to the microphone module and press a button on it to answer. The microphone is sensitive enough to pick up my voice even though it is at about the level even with my jawline. I can carry a conversation and only have to take my hand off the bars for a second to hit the answer button. I suppose I can set my phone to autoanswer after a few rings to totally make this handsfree. Once the call is over, the phone restarts the music, slowly bringing the volume back up to my set level.

    All the while I am hearing what is going on around me, whether I am listening to music or on the phone. It was a well spent $25.00 for these things.

  14. BluesCat October 20, 2011 8:01 am 

    Oh, and I TOTALLY take everything back about riding with earbuds/headphones if that gal with the white headphones would take this Ol’ Kitty home and keep me!

  15. Brian October 20, 2011 8:03 am 

    I personally do not like riding with both ears in. (I actually rarely ride with music at all, but that is another matter…).

    I think it isn’t terrible to require 1 ear open all the time. However, I have issues with banning headsets altogether. Last time I checked, states are largely in favor of ‘hands free’ laws the require a bluetooth (or other style, even those crazy ‘wired’ ones) headset. If that is the case, how is it fair to say drivers can have a single earpiece in, but not cyclists.

    The point about wind noise and cycling is totally legit as well – but would be completely missed by the non-cyclist community. Those times I have listened to music, assuming I keep the volume at a sane level when standing still, it does largely blend in with wind noise and such at speed to where it isn’t really a distraction, and certainly doesn’t subtract from my ability to observe my surroundings. But, if you listen full blast that may be a different story…

  16. Zyzzyx October 20, 2011 10:45 am 

    Another vote of confidence for the Airdrive headphones.

    Picked them up recently and am quite pleased. As mentioned, the sound quality isn’t there, but you CAN still hear EVERYTHING else going on, since they are not IN your ears.

    Have found they work great in the office as well. Can have my tunes but still be able to hear my name from across the room.

  17. holly October 20, 2011 11:12 am 

    I prefer to ride without headphones of any type. I like hearing what is going on around me. But I don’t know about banning them. While studies have shown that talking on a cell phone – even hands-free – makes you drive worse than driving intoxicated, I don’t know of any studies showing that listening to music impairs you to a similar extent.

    I thought there were laws in some places that automotive drivers could not wear headphones, however. I could be wrong; I see a lot of car drivers wearing headphones and earbuds.

  18. Champs October 20, 2011 11:59 am 

    The “lefty/nanny-state” trope probably leads to the “slippery slope” of banning bicycles altogether, somehow. Rather than meddle, it’s very possible that they’re just concerned with clearing the road for emergency vehicles—that’s your safety, and the public’s. Sirens may pierce the biggest of car stereo systems, but tiny little headphones do a fine job of blocking that out. That’s why it’s also illegal in most places.

    Deaf drivers can see the lights in their mirrors, and deaf cyclists aren’t deliberately impaired. What’s the excuse when you’re listening to Justin Bieber?

  19. Mike Myers October 21, 2011 5:56 am 

    There’s a big difference in the way in-ear phones and on-ear phones interfere with hearing. I’ve ridden with actual earphones which seated deep into the ear canal. With those, I’m totally isolated from the world.

    I have a headphone fetish. In a perfect world, I’d wear my Grado SR80s and carry my portable Altoids tin headphone amp while I ride, but sacrifices have to be made. Before I found the AirDrives, I tried these:

    That’s the Koss KSC-75. They’re an on-ear headphone with an open back. That means you can hear outside noise. They don’t offer the same level of ambient hearing as the AirDrives, but the sound quality is much better.

    I’ve seen the bike mounted speakers, but they’re either going to be so underpowered that sound quality suffers, or they’re going to be so loud that the cyclist becomes the jerk who’s forcing his music on everybody else.

    Is riding while wearing headphones a risk? Maybe. Is it against the law? Yep, and so is driving while wearing headphones—but driving your airtight Lexus while cranking the Mark Levinson stereo at deafening levels isn’t. Ever been in a luxury car with the stereo cranked? You may as well be in a soundproof booth.

    I will continue to ride with headphones. If I get a ticket, I’ll pay it. The enjoyment I get is worth the risk.

  20. ROSCOLA October 21, 2011 7:33 am 

    BluesCat brought up the problem that I have with bikers wearing headphones. I commute along the lakefront path in Chicago. And the people wearing headphones are in their own little world. They can’t hear me when I yell that I’m passing them. I’ve been in one accident because of this and one of my friends has also been in an accident.

    The main result is that now when I come across a biker with headphones, I treat them as if they have the plague and give them a really wide berth. Obviously the oblivious headphone wearers don’t represent all headphone wearers. But I can’t tell the difference. And if Chicago passed a headphone law, I’d be all for it.

  21. Ghost Rider October 21, 2011 10:17 am 

    @ROSCOLA — I am right there with you. I spend a lot of time on a multi-use path system here in Ohio, and there are lots of straight areas where I can haul ass and get a decent workout. Trouble is, there are tons of headphone-wearers (mostly joggers), and I have to a)really scream at them or b)hug the left edge as I blow past. While I haven’t been in an crash, I’ve come close a couple times.

  22. Paul October 21, 2011 10:51 pm 

    Although I never listen to music while riding my bike to work, a headphone law would reduce the number of audio books to zero.

  23. October 22, 2011 8:21 pm 

    Hear Hear to Bokchoi Cowboy in CA. Even though it may hinder other cyclists or yourself while commuting by bike, can’t we just self regulate? We cant keep pedestrians from wearing headsets who are jogging along the path, and giving tickets would simply discourage new cyclists from entering the bike commuting world to begin with… Lets get back to the fun and away from the citations!!! PS the Velib rent a bike system is really cool in Paris and Bordeaux! Most peeps hop on without any cycling “gear” which more likely includes a headphones rider than a helmeted one… Baguette for your thoughts!

  24. BaldMonkey November 5, 2011 2:05 am 

    So let me get this straight. If these laws get passed I will need to use a hands free device to talk on the phone, ok no problem. But now it will be wrong to use any type of head phones. Is it me or do these two laws contradict each other?

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