Kurt Bauschardt / Flickr

They may actually work against city goals to encourage more riding.

Massachusetts recently proposed a law that would prohibit cyclists from wearing headphones while riding. The bill is currently locked in committee, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise for it to see the light of day at some point. As Jenni Bergal at Pew’s Stateline blog writes, a number of U.S. states are dealing with distracted cycling indirectly—banning headsets or earplugs rather than cellphone use:

Most state laws don’t directly deal with cyclists using cellphones or texting. But at least seven states—California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia—specifically include bicyclists in their laws restricting or banning the use of headsets or earplugs. An eighth state, Pennsylvania, prohibits people driving vehicles from using headsets, a prohibition that likely applies to bicycles, which are defined as vehicles in that state, AAA says.

Delaware bars cyclists from wearing earplugs or headsets covering both ears. Maryland does the same, except when cyclists are riding on bike paths. In Rhode Island, bikers or drivers who wear earphones, headsets or other listening devices are subject to an $85 fine for a first offense, $95 for a second and $140 for a third or subsequent offense. The state does allow the use of cellphone headsets that provide sound through just one ear.

There’s sufficient evidence that distracted cycling, like distracted anything, has a negative impact on a person’s behavior. Controlled studies out of the Netherlands, where bike safety is a national mandate, have found that riders using a smartphone veer and swerve more than those who don’t, and also detect fewer road signs. More recent work has found that riders are texting more than they used to, the result being that they tend to make fewer head movements at intersections—and thus are presumably less aware of their traffic surroundings.

The research on wearing headphones while cycling, in particular, is much weaker. Another study group based out of the Netherlands recently surveyed the relevant literature and found very little to speak of. Here’s the long and short of what they did dig up:

  • Worse auditory perception. One study found that cyclists who were either wearing headphones or using a smartphone were less likely to hear ambient traffic sounds, such as other bicycle bells, than riders who weren’t on their phones. Not exactly a huge shock. Still, the researchers wonder if music will have an even greater negative impact once quieter electric cars become more prevalent.
  • Mixed riding performance. Observations found that cyclists listening to music disobeyed traffic rules more often than than riders using a phone. But field experiments found no negative impact of headphones on a rider’s “visual detection.”
  • Mixed safety reports. Teenagers and young adults who used an electronic device—including but not limited to a music player—reported a higher crash rate than freewheeling counterparts. But there was no increased risk for middle-aged or older cyclists, and no hard objective evidence for any age group one way or the other.

All of which suggests the obvious: wearing headphones probably makes it a little bit tougher for riders to focus on the road, but not much. That makes it very reasonable for public officials to increase awareness about the safety risks of musical cycling. But the jump from there to banning the practice is a very long one, especially when you consider the modest benefits of such laws against the many drawbacks.

First off, unlike drivers who can more or less hide their phone use, cyclists are out in the open. That’s an invitation for targeting, especially in cities where police tend to have a windshield view of bike riders. No-headphone laws, much like mandatory helmet laws, could also discourage some people from riding. Since it’s well-established that cyclists experience safety in numbers, such rules could arguably hurt public health as much as they help it. Then there’s the cost of implementing bike-music enforcement programs—arguably a poorer use of limited public funding than, say, a protected bike lane that not only enhances safety but encourages more people to ride.

The issue here really isn’t about creating parity with distracted driving laws. People who ride a bike wearing headphones are primarily putting their own safety on the line, not someone else’s. Nor is it about pedestrian protections; there are already rules in place to keep negligent cyclists from slamming into people on sidewalks or in crosswalks. It’s about finding ways to make city streets not only safe for everyone but particularly attractive to people who choose not to drive.

In that sense, the type of laws proposed in Massachusetts and adopted elsewhere may work against the efforts most cities have made to promote more cycling and balanced mobility networks. They’re not wrong, per se. They’re just what you might call a bit of a distraction.

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