America is a strange place. From bloomers to hip hop to the iPhone, we've been the driving force of cultural change for much of the world. At the same time, we can be profoundly uptight—and there are few things we're more uptight about than riding bikes.
Granted, we mostly get cycling as an athletic pursuit, but we're considerably less comfortable when confronted with people riding bikes who appear to be...comfortable. You know, cruising around in a carefree fashion, like Pee-wee Herman before his bike got stolen. Ours is a land of skyscrapers and mountains and big cars and guns, so when we see someone who is simultaneously vulnerable and at ease with his or her own vulnerability, we feel contempt for them. The thinking seems to go like this: "Look at that fool out there on the bike, happy as can be. Shouldn't he at least be taking himself as seriously as I do in my GMC Acadia?"
It's not just a driver thing either. In fact, few people are less tolerant of comfortable cycling than cyclists. Yes, there's helmet shaming, but you don't even have to forego a foam hat to elicit the ire and self-righteousness of the safety brigade. All you have to do is stick a pair of headphones in your ear before hopping on your bike and people will act like you just signed your own death warrant.
What's the big deal with riding in headphones anyway? Well, it's not hard to understand why it worries people so much: it's dangerous! Cycling requires awareness, and if you're plugging up your ears in traffic, then you're introducing an unnecessary level of impairment that could mean the difference between life and death. Right?
The person riding around with their quick release skewers undone and their v-brakes unhooked? That worries me. But riding in headphones doesn’t even register on the Concern-O-Meter. As far as stuff that’s dangerous to do while riding a bike, I’d rank wearing headphones somewhere between picking your nose and picking a wedgie. (No doubt someone somewhere has crashed badly while attempting to pick one or the other or perhaps even both at the same time.)
“So are you cool with motorists using headphones too?” you may ask. That’s the first thing I was asked when I tweeted my utter lack of concern for CWE (Cycling While Entertained) not too long ago.
No, not really. I’d also like drivers to wear motoring helmets, to be perfectly honest. (Car crashes are a major cause of TBI and the leading cause of fatal head trauma in teens after all.) But it doesn’t really matter whether or not I’m cool with drivers sticking tiny speakers in their ears, because they do it anyway. Half the drivers I see are wearing some sort of Bluetooth headset or just the headphones that came with their phone, and the other half have decided “screw it” and are talking right into the actual phone.
Then there are the cars themselves. The cabins are soundproofed and insulated to isolate the drivers from bothersome noise, like road buzz or the shouts of the cyclist they almost killed. Indeed, quiet interiors are a major selling point and a hallmark of luxury. And, of course, on top of all that they’re equipped with lavish sound systems to drown out whatever sonic intrusions still manage to infiltrate the driver’s consciousness. Cool with drivers wearing headphones? They might as well drive around in that sensory depravation tank from Altered States: a rarefied, womb-like driving experience is the culturally accepted state of affairs.
“Well, all the more reason not to wear headphones while riding,” you might be thinking. “If drivers aren’t aware of their surroundings, you damn well better be.”
Absolutely true. But how much does listening to headphones interfere with your ability to do so? Sure, blasting Slayer's "Reign In Blood" at top volume directly into your skull while riding is probably a bad idea (especially since it’s all too easy to confuse sirens and Kerry King solos), but it's also a bad idea off the bike, too, since your smartphone is probably capable of producing enough volume to cause hearing damage. But once you bring things down to a reasonable volume, are you really taking a risk? Doesn’t it stand to reason that as long as whatever you’re listening to doesn’t drown out the sounds of your environment you should be okay?
The truth is there’s been very little study in this area, but a test conducted by the Australian magazine RideOn in 2012 revealed, among other things, that a rider wearing earbud headphones and listening to music at a reasonable volume not only hears fellow cyclists perfectly well but also hears more than someone inside a car listening to no music whatsoever.
Of course, like any taboo, there are workarounds when it comes to listening to music while cycling. One option is the handlebar-mounted Bluetooth speaker, which combines poor fidelity with the sadistic pleasure of foisting your musical choices on others. Then there are bone-conduction headphones, which are supposedly okay because they don’t go directly directly into your ear, evoking the kind of odd workarounds and mental (and physical) gymnastics that religious people engage in so that they can technically remain virgins. I once tested a helmet that incorporated bone-conduction speakers in the straps and basically pumped the music from your phone via Bluetooth into your cheekbones, and while I don’t see how this setup kept me any safer than those ubiquitous white earbuds, I can assure you it sounded terrible.
I should confess that I almost never wear headphones while riding. However, this isn’t because I think doing so at a conservative volume is especially dangerous; rather, it’s simply because music or other entertainment doesn’t enhance my riding experience. I prefer to take my cycling neat, like my Scotch. However it’s clear that a great many people do enjoy a cocktail of riding and music, or podcasts, or whatever else people listen to while out on the bike. So, your local laws notwithstanding, I say go right ahead.
Just be sure to enjoy responsibly.