Image by Kurt Bauschardt licensed under Creative Commons.

Safer streets are a good thing. We all want them. But if a city made wearing headphones while riding a bike illegal, would that help get us there?

Last week, CityLab’s Kriston Capps wrote that one proposal for bringing DC closer to its Vision Zero-inspired goals, where there are no traffic-related deaths on DC’s streets, is a $50 fine for wearing headphones in both ears while riding a bike.

Capps doesn't love the idea, and is it turned out, neither do our contributors. They largely think that there’s not much evidence to say riding with headphones is actually dangerous in the first place, that drivers should be a much bigger concern if we're worried about music distracting people, and that even if this were a good idea, enforcing the law fairly would be a real challenge (to put it mildly).

Is riding with headphones in even that dangerous?

While it may at first sound logical to create a law that penalizes cyclists for doing something that might insulate them from the world at large and thus cause danger, don't be so sure that headphones actually do that.

Gregory Billing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said there’s no proof that cyclists riding with headphones is a widespread problem, or even that it’s a problem at all. He cited the language WABA has put out on the matter:

The Agencies have not presented any evidence that supports the notions that (1) bicyclists engage in these behaviors with any frequency, (2) when they do, these behaviors cause crashes, or (3) those crashes result in death or serious injury. We do not believe such evidence exists. It would contradict a fundamental principle of Vision Zero for a rule to be driven by anecdotes or gut reactions rather than data.

Greg goes on to say that, "it's a better idea to bike without headphones. But definitely, don't make laws against it."

“First,” says Nick Keenan, “where is the evidence that headphones are inherently dangerous? I know it’s ‘common sense,’ but people believe a lot of things that turn out to be not true. Show me the evidence.”

Nick goes on to note that a few years ago, he wrote a post for David Cranor’s WashCycle blog about a Washington Post report that in a 23-year span, local motorists killed 10,000 people while there were only two cases of pedestrians dying after collisions with cyclists. It turns out the numbers were a bit off, but a bigger point about the dangers of cycling still stood:

David looked into it at the time and found that the Post was a little off-- he found four incidents of pedestrians killed in collisions with cyclists in the period between 1979 to 2010. So the correct number is probably closer to 3,000 people killed by drivers for every person killed by a cyclist.

In either case, the conclusion is that cyclists are not a significant risk to other people. The person they are most at risk to is themselves. Which introduces a whole question of what is an acceptable level of risk for people to expose themselves to? If we ban headphones, should we ban listening to music through speakers? What about having conversations with other cyclists? Should deaf people be allowed to cycle at all? Eye injuries are common when cycling, should we require eye protection of all cyclists? My kids’ orthodontist recommends that all kids wear a mouthguard when cycling, she sees a lot of kids who lose teeth in crashes. Should that be required?

Banning headphones for cyclists, it seems, could be the beginning of a reductio ad absurdum scenario where all sorts of "risky" behaviors or safety features could be codified into law.

A fine like this would unfairly target cyclists over drivers

That point seems especially salient when you consider the extent to which music and other distractions are an embedded part of driving.

Topher Mathews summed up the fine targeted at cyclists this way:

It's completely in keeping with the "distracted pedestrian" movement that aims to shift blame for pedestrian deaths away from drivers. I ride with my earbuds in every day and don't feel it's unsafe because I keep it at a level low enough that I can hear my own gears turn. If that's not something a bicyclist feels comfortable doing, then fine. But car companies advertise how well their cars isolate drivers from outside sounds!!! That's even before you consider the entire industry that exists to blast music into this isolated environment at unhealthy decibel levels!

"I routinely see drivers on their cell phones, and this is only rarely policed,” said Gray Kimbrough. “But we want to ignore that and instead cite people who represent much less danger to others?"

Joanne Pierce pointed out that drivers getting distracted by the radio should be a concern:

If someone in a car is fiddling with their radio or the music is so loud they don't spot pedestrians or hear people yelling, then they absolutely should be responsible for any harm they do.

Joanne also noted that equitable enforcement would be be difficult because it's hard to tell when someone is listening to music in a car and it would be easier to unfairly target cyclists:

It's not possible to know whether someone inside a car is listening to music, but it is possible to see whether a bicyclist is wearing headphones, so I agree the law would favor drivers. But if reducing distraction is the goal then pedestrians could also be fined for wearing headphones.

Nick put a point on the conversation about drivers:

There is a perception among some drivers that driving is over-regulated and walking and cycling are under-regulated. So you get attempts like this to be “even-handed.” If you take even the most cursory look at accident statistics it’s clear that the opposite is in fact true, that relative to the risk they post to others, drivers are under-regulated and pedestrians and cyclists are over-regulated.

Even if the fine made sense, it would be impractical to implement and easy to abuse

Speaking of equity… let's imagine that the fine did make sense, and there was statistical data safety that justified it. How would police go about systematically cracking down on cyclists wearing headphones? Some of our contributors warned that this $50 citation could be used to not only to disportionately harass cyclists, but perhaps minorities as well.

Gray Kimbrough said:

This is policing in search of a problem. Citations for things that represent clear dangers to others absolutely make sense, but this is clearly not in that category.

There's the additional wrinkle that these kinds of minor infractions are commonly used as a pretense to stop certain groups of people. As we've seen with jaywalking, police officers do not tend to cite people who look like me (a white male). Instead, they're more likely to stop people of color, and such encounters can quickly escalate to a far more dangerous situation than whatever risk someone is taking by jay walking or biking while wearing headphones.

Tracy Loh also warned against creating laws police don't have the resources or intention of enforcing and may have the unintended side effect of creating animosity between police and cyclists, for example:

Don't pass laws that you have zero intention or resources to enforce. It reduces respect for the law in general. There is also, in many cities, already an issue with law enforcement having trouble treating cyclists fairly, and also targeting cyclists in particular neighborhoods/demographics with citations. A headphone ordinance is likely to create more problems than it solves.

The answer isn’t a fine for wearing headphones. It’s for everyone to be more alert.

Really, the best way to address whatever risk might come from wearing headphones is probably for everyone to simply be aware and courteous.

Considering the lack of facts supporting such a law, its unpopularity, the difficulty implementing it, and ways it could be used to disproportionately and unfairly target cyclists, the general sentiment is that a law isn't even necessary. The same behavior the $50 fine would seek to punish could be better moderated by individuals who are simply more aware and courteous to their fellow travelers.

"I always keep my headphones down so I can hear other noises,” said Kristen Jeffers. “We should continue to push for people to have a general awareness of their surroundings, despite how they travel."

And this isn't just a suggestion for cyclists. Anyone using the road would likely benefit from keeping their music down so they can hear what's going on around them. By increasing your own level of awareness, you're actively reducing the risk of the environment to you.

If you listen to music or podcasts while you ride a bike, lowering the volume might make you more aware of your surroundings. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing to do, but if we really want our streets to be safer for everyone, better bike infrastructure is probably the place to start..

As a person who uses the street, what would you do to increase transportation safety?


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Matthew Koehler is currently a stay at home dad who formerly worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan and Washington, DC. When not chasing his three-year-old daughter around, he chronicles he fathering experiences in blog form and is always on the look out for obscure beers. For the time being, he resides in the ever-changing Southwest neighborhood, just down the street from Nationals Ballpark.