Earbuds: The Silent Killer


I can’t name many universal truths, but here’s one: just about everything is better with a soundtrack.

In particular, this principle applies to A-to-B activities like walking, driving and riding public transit. However, while biking seems like a natural candidate for improvement-by-music, it’s not — for one simple reason.

Listening to music while biking is RIDICULOUSLY DANGEROUS.

Hearing is super-important while biking in traffic. Because cars can’t always see bikes, bikers need to stay hyperaware of their proximity to cars as they ride.

Luckily, cars are noisy — and our brains are truly excellent at unscrambling all the sounds our ears suck up, and determining their sources in real time. Ears are basically the next best thing to having extra eyes in the back and sides of your head.

With your ears plugged up, you’re relying entirely on your eyes to keep track of the traffic around you. This means that you need to fully turn your head to check for the cars that you’d otherwise be able to hear and confirm with a quick glance. Every time you take your eyes off what’s in front of you, you risk hitting a pothole, a pedestrian, or an open car door.

Legally speaking, Massachusetts does not specifically prohibit cyclists from biking with earbuds or headphones. But, if you get into an accident, the fact that you were wearing something in or over your ears can be used to show you were partially responsible.

Not enough of a reason? How about this: to a motorist, headphone-clad bikers look totally clueless — like unpredictable obstacles that shouldn’t be allowed in traffic. No motorist will take us seriously when we appear as if we’re not paying attention.

Because of all this, I admit that I would support a law that prohibits wearing earbuds or headphones while riding in traffic. I know that I’ve said that the best way to encourage safety is through education rather than legislation™ — and I stand by that — but in this case, the issue is just too glaringly obvious.

I found, while researching for non-Mass versions of my Accident Report card (coming soon!), that some states (like New York and California) already have laws in place that prohibit wearing headphones while biking. The statutes in those states do allow for one-eared listening, though.

So please use just one earbud, for safety’s sake, if you’re going to listen to music while you ride. The right ear is probably better, since most bike lanes are on the right; this leaves your open left ear facing traffic.

There’s a company, One Good Earbud Far End Gear, that makes a line of headphones with just this in mind. I can’t, however, fully endorse them, as I’ve never had the opportunity to use their products.  I’d be more than happy to test them out if they wanna send me a pair.  You know, for science.


IMAGE via flickr

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