Should you cycle with earphones in?

Is turning on, tuning in and dropping out from sound around you ever a good thing on a bike?

Should you cycle with earphones in? This image show's a rider heading towards a camera with a white helmet on, earphones with wires, dark glasses and a black rain jacket on

Wearing earphones and listening to your own sounds, be it music or spoken word, while riding is one of those topics that divides the cycling community.

A survey by ESRA (E-Survey of Road Users' Attitudes) in 2018 carried out in 60 countries and covering 6 continents, concluded that 58% of participants across all regions supported a ban of the use of headphones while cycling. 

The USA laws on wearing headphones are decided state by state, with most amounting to it being illegal to ride with headphones covering/ in both ears, although in some states it's a strict ban when riding on the road all together.

In the UK it's not illegal to cycle with earphones in or covering ears. However as a road user, you can be prosecuted for not riding with due care and attention.

It's a large area of controversy, with the last large scale poll conducted on the subject (BBC 2014) resulted in almost nine out of 10 responders in favour of a blanket ban, with many citing a perception of cyclists being unaware and unresponsive to dangers, therefore more likely to be involved in incidents.

Should I cycle with earphones? This image shows a woman riding a bike in non-cycle wear, with a basket on the front of her bike, she is wearing headphones. In the back ground are lots of bikes lent against railings which have flowers in baskets on them.

The ESRA survey revealed widespread support by participants  for the banning of headphones when riding. 

(Image credit: Getty )

Is it safe to ride with headphones? 

Rider and road user safety seems to be the main reason behind any bans or restriction of headphones use, with 'inattentional blindness', the inability to notice the most conspicuous object because our attention is focused elsewhere, often thought of as the culprit.

However with some of the best headphones for cycling on the market today, you can choose to amplify ambient sound, or even opt for bone conducting headphones, which leave the ears open to external sound, which could mean that riding with earphones aren't now as isolating as once traditionally perceived.  

While it’s hardly unexpected for headphones users to come under fire, research has actually found that, contrary to popular opinion, listening to music while cycling might not be as detrimental to your health and safety as almost all groups would have us believe.

Riding with headphones. This image shows the upper body and heads of two cyclists side by side. Both have black helmets, sunglasses and a pair of Shockz headphones on. The one on the right is wearing a white short sleeve top, the on on the left has a red, white and blue short sleeved cycling top on.

Riding with bone conducting Shockz headphones keeps your ears open to noise around you. 

(Image credit: Shockz)

Cycling with headphones

A study on Cycling's sensory strategies: how cyclists mediate their exposure to the urban environment by Dr Katrina Jungnickel and Dr Rachel Aldred found the use of music and headphones actually helped create a ‘sensory strategy’ that enabled the cyclist to cope with riding in a dangerous environment by effectively calming the overload of sensory data.

The research above was conducted on urban cyclists and showed that they were just as aware of their surroundings, if not more so, than other transport users and engage in sensory strategies that manage their exposure to risk.

Just as drivers use the radio to create a safe, social and comfortable space on the road, it is possible to interpret cyclists’ sensory strategies as ways of negotiating and taming challenging environments.

The research above was conducted on urban cyclists and showed that they were just as aware of their surroundings, if not more so, than other transport users and engage in sensory strategies that manage their exposure to risk.

Just as drivers use the radio to create a safe, social and comfortable space on the road, it is possible to interpret cyclists’ sensory strategies as ways of negotiating and taming challenging environments. 

Outside of the chaotic urban environment, music may also play a major part in increasing your fitness when incorporated into training. It can boost your ability to ride harder, faster and with more enjoyment.

According to another study by Dr Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University, one of the world’s foremost experts in sport psychology, music is effectively a legal performance-enhancing drug.

This study was able to evidence that listening to your favourite artists can increase your endurance by up to 15 per cent while lowering your perception of effort.

It also demonstrated that music can also trick your mind into feeling less tired during a workout, and also help to encourage positive thoughts.

While listening to music will no doubt mask some outside noises, an informal but well researched and executed Australian study by RideOn, found that a cyclist wearing ear-bud style headphones and playing music at a reasonable volume hears much more outside noise than a car driver — even when that driver has no music playing.

That said, it also concluded that the type of earphones used make a big difference as to what and how loudly things were heard. 

Headphones for cycling 

Deciding if you should cycle with earphones is a very personal decision, and in some cases a legal one. 

In the UK a spokesperson from British Cycling shares the sentiment that “It’s best to use all your senses while riding a bike but your hearing is far less important than your sight". Before going on to say "People who are deaf can ride perfectly safely while on the road. In the end we should all be looking out for each other.”

This shows a pair of headphones you could use when cycling. The Shokz OpenRun headphones are bone conducting and are shown on a woman wearing a white jumper standing in front of a brick wall.

(Image credit: Future/ Michelle Arthurs-Brennan)

Key safety points before cycling with headphones 

Headphone makers Shokz say that the best headphones for cycling are bone conducting ones as it believes that 'open ear headphones are the bet for situational music and also to hear the world around.' 

On test Shockz OpenRun bone conduction headphones allowed us to always hear approaching cars, giving them near full marks on test. 

Alternatively, if you are still unsure, select a pair of earphones for use when riding one of the best exercise bikes when dialled in to your favourite tunes, or get the full outside experience inside with one of the best indoor training apps

Expert views

Sam Williams, former pro rider

“I am a huge lover of listening to music while riding. For me, earphones are just as important as a pump and spare inner tube when I’m out on a ride.

"I listen to music even when I’m just out for an easy spin. It’s great for either chilling you out or getting you pumped up for when you have a harder training session.”

Edmund King AA president

“It helps if road users have their wits and senses about them whether as a driver, pedestrian, cyclist or motorcyclist.

"We wouldn’t advocate that drivers turn up their music so loud so as to drown out any outside noise and equally if those on two wheels choose to wear headphones or earphones the volume should not drown out external noise.”

Some of the quotes in this article were originally published in November 2016

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Hannah Bussey

Hannah is Cycling Weekly’s longest-serving tech writer, having started with the magazine back in 2011. She has covered all things technical for both print and digital over multiple seasons representing CW at spring Classics, and Grand Tours and all races in between.

Hannah was a successful road and track racer herself, competing in UCI races all over Europe as well as in China, Pakistan and New Zealand.

For fun, she's ridden LEJOG unaided, a lap of Majorca in a day, won a 24-hour mountain bike race and tackled famous mountain passes in the French Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites and Himalayas. 

She lives just outside the Peak District National Park near Manchester UK with her partner, daughter and a small but beautifully formed bike collection.