Thursday, September 8

Earphones are Dangerous

Part 6 of a continuing "Myth" Series

Well, tomorrow I go to bike school - once again, for what seems like the millionth time. I hope that Ed W's theory that my head will explode is incorrect. However, many reading this blog will have a different theory about why my head exploded if it happens. You see, I wear earphones while cycling. Gail will be in the class, so if she reads this, she'll be flagged in advance if she wants to tell me how STUPID that is. Khal, on the other hand, might prefer to advise me how I'm now qualified for the "Darwin Award." The many ways that people play back this myth are too numerous to mention.

Still, it IS a myth. People continue to believe this, even though I've ridden nearly 10,000 miles, most of it with earphones on, over the last few years without any negative effects that could conceivably be attributed to the earphones. Well, except for the Fort Worth Policeman that falsely claimed that wearing earphones while riding in Fort Worth was illegal. I would consider THAT a negative effect. Well, and one other situation where a radio commentator so closely echoed what I constantly tell my children that I nearly rode right off an empty road. Still, those pale into insignificance against the myriad riding problems that I've encountered where hearing plays absolutely no conceivable role. Indeed, when commuting, where I invariably am riding without companions, I will typically ride with earphones  even when I'm not listening to the radio. You see, it isn't earphones that are dangerous at all, it is being distracted from the task at hand. That distraction can come from all sorts or aural sources. What's more, these extraneous external noises can be a much worse distraction than the morning traffic and weather reports. And that radio really doesn't drown out the meaningful traffic noise unless it is turned up entirely too loud anyway. Sunglasses, which I typically wear on the way home, act as a visual equivalent. They cut the glare down.

Don't take it from me, read THIS essay by John Allen about earphones and cycling. He's absolutely on the mark, or at least his observations track completely with my own experiences, so I'll not repeat them in this post. DO GO READ THIS, IF YOU THINK THAT EARPHONES ARE A SHORTCUT TO HELL. If you want to go further, read motorcycling literature on the subject. It is ubiquitous. Such equipment is legal in all 50 states as long as you can't hear any music or radio through either ear. You can buy such equipment commercially. Hmm, come to think of it, why does nobody claim that car radios are dangerous when we have ALL seen people unable to focus on the road as their favorite rapper song unfolds?

ON THE OTHER HAND, this afternoon, I got stopped at a stop sign behind a lady in a small red econobox that felt the stop sign was an appropriate place to apply her makeup. I simply watched and waited, not feeling it worth the trouble of removing my earphones and yelling at her to "get a move on." Eventually, she noticed there was a patient cyclist behind her, apparently observing her technique. And I'm sure you've all stopped next to a motorist busily texting away. Unfortunately the one in the photo below woke up and flashed me a smile before the camera focus set. Trust me, a moment before, the phone was down in his lap and his fingers were dancing. But his car was stopped. The biggest danger he presented is that the light might have turned green, leading HIM to get rear ended by the mob behind him. The cyclist in the left turn to his right would have not faced such a danger, merely having earphones with the news coming through them. You see, it really IS DISTRACTION that's the danger. And we all get distracted by different stuff. Operating on the road is best done with focus on the task. Sometimes that focus requires we NOT wear earphones. Sometimes that focus is better maintained WITH earphones.

Texting at a Stop Light - Should This REALLY Be Illegal? This Guy Put No One in Danger - Well, Other Than Himself
Full Disclosure: If you didn't read the John Allen essay, there IS one potential downside to earphones, even if you are not the least bit distracted by them. Namely, if you are involved in a crash while wearing them, and presuming you are completely blameless, if there is another party involved, their legal representation can be expected to claim YOU are negligent simply because you had earphones on and so the scofflaw ought to walk. Such is the way of the world. Deal with it.

Tomorrow: Cycling Savvy Classroom


John Romeo Alpha said...

For me personally, I find am more comfortable riding without headphones because my ears provide additional data to me about my surroundings, which headphones limit. I do not rely on my hearing, or any other sense for that matter, for PREEMPTIVE WARNINGS about dangers, although they sometimes provide such warnings of course, which I also process and try my best to react to appropriately. Rather, I use my senses to gather data about what's happening around me and process that to anticipate so far as possible what my next action should be. Sight is also very unreliable, in ways precisely parallel to the challenges Allen raises for hearing. Our vision, particularly the in use on the streets, is notoriously reliant on familiarity, and susceptible to failure through optical illusion and errors of perspective, distance, angle and velocity calculations, and unrecognized stereoscopic impairment, and just plain overlooking. Don't get me wrong, our vision system is amazing at doing all this at once, in a busy and fast-changing environment, but it is also, in John Allen's words, "Sometimes helpful, but unreliable". What I really want is one of those ultrasonic proximity systems that luxury cars have, coupled with a rear-facing video camera, all adapted in a slick way to bicycle usage. Some day, some day. For now, for myself, I prefer to include hearing in that tool kit.

thomas said...

Unfortunately, neither this blog post nor John Allen's piece rely on modern scientific data. Cognitive psychologists have best modeled human attention to be both limited and selective. Increased stimuli only worsen attention. Feel free to continue to rant about how you're still a safe rider, but current cognitive research has revealed the myth of multitasking.

veesee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
veesee said...

Oy, yikes, I dunno. It's absolutely your right to wear headphones if you so choose but oh hell to the no am I gonna do it. I like those few extra seconds warning I get that a car is approaching. More time to react is always a plus in my book.

And the first time I saw someone wearing headphones while cycling, it was nighttime and he had neither lights nor a helmet so I kind of associate headphones with stupid. As much as I miss my tunes and my NPR, I'll stick with the sweet, calming sound of broken mufflers and screeching brakes.

Steve A said...

Thomas's point is well taken, but it ignores that cyclists are subject to aural distraction whether they wear earphones or not because almost alone amongst vehicular road users, they are not insulated by glass or loud motorcycle motors from that environment. John Allen does make that point. Right now, for example, without my earphones, I hear a fascinating discussion going on, the wind, and cars going by a block away. The only real question is whether those are more serious distractions than simply drowning some of the irrelevant noises out. I guess I COULD possibly benefit by simply wearing earplugs as many motorcyclists do, but a possible flip side to distraction is boredom. I have no good observations on that, though I have seen motorists simply run off a straight road. I doubt it was because they had the weather report on their radio.

Steve A said...

veesee, I never listen to NPR while riding. I find it engaging enough to be distracting.

thomas said...

Steve - You're bored on your bike, without headphones?! There's your problem, you're doing something wrong!

Steve A said...

Thomas, the point of this post was NOT to claim that earphones are a societal good, but rather that they are NOT the serious evil that you so often see claimed. Chewing gum while riding can be a distraction, too. I'd really like to see a single shred of evidence that listening to weather reports and news on a bike, by whatever means, is ANY more dangerous than doing the same thing while operating a motor vehicle. If it isn't, or even if there is nothing beyond lurid stories, one might ask what is the REAL motivation for scare stories, and even possible legal action, about earphones and cycling, while maintaining silence on the subject of motorist radio distraction.

Anonymous said...

Tsk. Tsk. Nuff said.

Rat Trap Press said...

I've wondered what your thoughts were about riding with earphones. I almost always ride the trails alone, it would be nice to listen to some music. I wouldn't be too concerned about wearing headphones on the Trinity Trails. I'm undecided about wearing them while riding on the road.

I definately see the danger in riding past pedestrians/ joggers who are wearing headphones. The recent death on the Katy Trail comes to mind.

Steve A said...

RTP, IMO, which is only that, the important question is how much distraction the earphones represent. Clearly, the answer is "none" until you turn on a radio or music. It is still probably "none" if all you hear is static at low volume. Loud music you feel compelled to dance to is probably very unwise. In between the extremes, you need to find what works for you. And when. What works for me on the street is what masks the distracting but irrelevant street noise. That partly depends on the wind level and direction. At night, when it is quiet and there is a tailwind, I abandon the things entirely.

Regardless, choose earphones and volumes that allow the important noise to reach you. I easily hear honks, yells, barks and basic noises. If on a trail, your combo should at least allow you to tell if a pedestrian is trying to say something to you, if not necessarily what. You can always yank them out, and I suggest ones that you can yank out, but that don't fall out on their own. Experiment in situations that are low risk, but that tell you if it'll be a problem when conflicts combine. Clearly, for me, commuting is such a situation, but you will note I did not do earphones on the Ramble.

John S. Allen said...

Thanks for citing my article. I made a some points in it other than the ones you made, so I encourage readers of this blog also to read it. To me, presumption of negligence is the key issue. I served as an expert witness for a plaintiff who was struck in the back by a car's rear-view mirror, and lost -- earphones and the presumption that she should have been riding farther right were factors, even though there was a blind entrance to the right ahead and the car that struck her had plenty more room to merge left around her -- and although there was no applicable law against wearing headphones! Any law that feeds bias leading to such miscarriages of justice is a travesty. Given that there is no law preventing motorists from running their motors, driving with their windows up, and playing radios loud enough to drown out external sounds, the headphone law is just as discriminatory as a mandatory bike lane law.

Steve A said...

John, thanks for visiting. You did indeed make MANY other points in your essay which is one reason I hoped people would go read the fully essay - short of an automatic redirect, I'm not sure how to go further than to make the link in giant red type! It is a CLASSIC in my opinion. It helped me on the path to flag myth #6.

I'd agree completely that earphone laws discriminate, not only against cyclists, but against motorcyclists. Such discrimination is more blatant when earplugs are perfectly OK. It is more insidious than some of the other myths because it is so often repeated as fact by people that ought to know better.

Fred said...

I have a friend who wears earphones because she constantly gets catcalls. Also, she is annoyed at the noise of cars. The human brain NEVER acclimates to intermittent loud noises. The modern, VC style roads are extremely LOUD and annoying.

On the other hand, if it's irresponsible to wear earphones on a bike, why can you pilot a two ton vehicle in silence from outside?

Why aren't all cars top down MANDATORY?

It's because cyclists are 2nd class citizens and articles like this, and testimony like this only reinforces our bottom feeder position, legally.

Thanks for keeping up the double standard.

Steve A said...

Fred, I'm confused as to exactly how my post represented any endorsement of the notion that wearing earphones is irresponsible. I wear earphones almost every day on my bike and have NEVER (except for one occasion) run into a problem doing so. And THAT problem was a cop creating imaginary laws. Perhaps you misread the "Myth" as "Fact?" BTW, your blog is interesting and I've added it to my list of ones to read.

Steve A said...

Fred, do you mistake me for some kind of advocate? I ride from place to place.

While I ride to stay safe, regardless of WHERE I'm riding, I DO have an opinion about VC. It may be found at:

d56277ea-38c0-11e3-9fb8-000bcdcb471e said...

Personally I think it should be legal to ride with headphones if one chooses, for all the reasons mentioned in this article, in John Allen's and more. I've ridden both with and without and at this point I choose to ride without in most circumstances since there have been enough times when I feel like I've gotten valuable information from my hearing. At this point if I want some music on my ride I slap on my Bluetooth speaker (there are several made with bike specific mounts). This lets me have my tunes, but still also take in the sounds around me.

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