Riding with headphones – illegal, immoral or irrelevant?

I’ve had three incidents in the past month that have got me thinking about my bike riding etiquette. Twice in the past couple months friends have stopped me as I took headphones out of my ears to tut-tut me on riding while listening to music. This afternoon, on my way home from a doctors appointment, a self-identified off-duty RCMP officer instructed me (to her credit, in a kindly way) that riding with headphone on was illegal and she had pulled over dozens of people for impaired riding.

The bike shop guys I asked later in the day confirmed it was a contravention of the BC Motor Vehicle Act. Unfortunately, my legal prowess is limited and after a quick search of the Act, I wasn’t able to discover any evidence to confirm this is the case. Though I’ve yet to find the precise legal wording one thing I have found is that in all my time riding, I’ve never run into troubles with a police officer for riding with headphones (despite being pulled over several times for other infractions). What’s most striking is that if it is actually a law, it’s one of the most ignored ones in history. Sitting at the Union St Cafe at the corner of Union and Hawkes, it’s hard to find a cyclist (particularly during the morning commute) who isn’t listening to tunes on a small portable i-phone or music player.  For me it begs the question of the relevance of such a rule. Is this another road rule that everyone (including the cops ignores) or is it something we all really should be paying attention to?

Fun tech friend or public enemy #1?

On the one hand, I understand how listening to music at a moderate volume can a) distract you from your environment and b) take away from your peripheral hearing. But is that really so different from the car radio (particularly at a high volume)? If you’re hands free and you are alert and listening to a music at a low volume, is this really so bad? And if this is the case, what about joggers? Should they not be held to the same standard?

What is most frustrating about this issue is that this prohibition isn’t really clear to cyclists (or anyone for that matter). It’s hard to find evidence one way or another on the ICBC website and there certainly seems to be a gap in public education around all matters of proper riding ediquette (apparently it’s also illegal to ride without a bell – really!?). In any event, if the rule isn’t being enforced, is it really a good rule to have? Practice seems to be very different from principle on this issue.

8 thoughts on “Riding with headphones – illegal, immoral or irrelevant?

  1. Kurt,

    The Motor Vehicle Act definitely prohibits _motor_ vehicle operators from using ipods with headphones, but as a cyclist I think it might in fact be on your side.*

    Section 183(1) of the Motor Vehicle Act: “In addition to the duties imposed by this section, a person operating a cycle on a highway has the same rights and duties as a driver of a vehicle.”

    s. 214.2 (1): A person must not use an electronic device while driving or operating a motor vehicle on a highway.

    The important word there is “motor.” You may have to act like a “vehicle” but not a “motor vehicle,” and those two terms are defined differently under the Act. Unless there is an additional section of the Act that I am missing, your bike does not qualify as a “motor” vehicle and you are not subject to s. 214.2.

    If you’re in a motor vehicle then using an ipod with headphones is prohibited, but connecting it to your speakers is not:

    Section 214.1 of the Motor Vehicle Act defines “electronic device” (which by 214.2(1) is prohibited while operating a motor vehicle) to include: “(c) a prescribed class or type of electronic device;”

    Motor Vehicle Act, Use of Electronic Devices While Driving Regulation (B.C. Reg. 308/2009), s. 3(1)(d) defines “hand-held audio players” as being prescribed under s. 214.1 of the Act; but section 10 of the Regulation permits you to use a hand-held audio player if it isn’t held in your hand, it is securely fixed to the vehicle or worn on your body without obstructing your driving, and if “(b) the sound is emitted through the speakers of the sound system of the motor vehicle,” which again suggests that if you are on a bike, s. 214.2 doesn’t apply to you.

    All that being said, I don’t ride with headphones because I hate not being able to hear what’s going on around me. I find hearing to be an incredibly important tool to my situational awareness when biking, and don’t like having it impaired.

    *But I am not a BC lawyer, this is not legal advice, don’t sue me for giving you bad advice, etc.

  2. There is also a Vancouver bylaw against it…


    Legality aside, riding with headphones is a really bad idea. Sure, it may not be any worse than playing music in your car really loud, but I think most would agree that it’s pretty stupid to have the music in your car so loud that you can’t hear what’s going on outside.

    True, it is possible to listen to music quietly but, as MF points out, hearing is a particularly important sense for cyclists – I rely on sound to know what’s around me to a much much greater extent when I am riding than when I am driving. Also, getting the music level “just right” would be pretty difficult/ impossible- what might be a good volume for part of a song might get really loud for another part.

    Joggers and walkers generally don’t share the road with cars, and generally move much more slowly than bikes, and so don’t have to be as aware of their surroundings, except when they are crossing a road (in which case doing a lot of visual checks is probably a pretty good idea if you are wearing headphones).

    I agree that it would be a good idea for the police to have an information campaign about the rule if it is a rule that they intend on enforcing. However, I don’t agree that rules that aren’t enforced aren’t good rules. I think stop signs, 30 km/hr zones around schools and other traffic calming measures are generally good things even though these are all widely disregarded by many motorists. Fight the good fight, Kurt.

  3. I thought it was interesting that you mentioned that joggers should be held to the same principle—it was the topic of lawmakers’ debate in the States recently, as reported here by the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/us/26runners.html Basically, a Senator was trying to introduce a fine for pedestrians and cyclists who listened to iPods or talked on their cell phone near or in traffic.

    I’m not a cyclist but I am a runner, and I know that earphones are slightly distracting, but when you’re exercising proper care in all other ways, I don’t see why this should be regulated. There needs to be some common sense here.

  4. Interesting – while it appears to be a Vancouver bylaw (thanks Julian!), it does not appear to be provincial one. I spoke with two VPD officer today and they informed me that as far as they knew, it was not illegal to cycle with headphones (just unwise). Further, neither had heard of an officer writing a ticket for this offense.

    Seeing that I believe the RCMP adheres to provincial criminal and traffic laws (as opposed to City of Vancouver bylaws), I’m becoming more and more convinced that my run in with the “off duty RCMP officer who frequently pulled over and ticketed cyclists” may have been a (somewhat) desperate cry from a civilian who wanted to be taken more seriously in her lecturing.

  5. If you read the 1999 Vancouver bylaw (attached below) it specifically says “over or in close proximity to both ears”. I wonder, if you have an earbud in just one ear does it contravene the bylaw? Or did they use that language because they were thinking about headphones and not earbuds which can be separated?

    If you can listen with one earbud I would assume the ear closest to traffic should be the ear without the bud which would make it safer and much more realistic as most people, myself included, don’t often ride without tunes, particularly in urban settings with the noise of traffic and construction.

    Great article by the way.

    No person shall ride a bicycle upon a street while wearing headphones, or any other manufactured device capable of transmitting sound, over or in close proximity to both ears, except that this prohibition shall not apply to the wearing of a device designed and worn for the purpose of improving the wearer’s ability to hear sounds emanating from outside of the device.


  6. I wear headphones and/or earplugs when I ride my bicycle or drive or ride my motorcycle. I don’t see how this would be any different from someone driving a car with the stereo fully blasted.

    If one feels that they need to hear to be aware on the road, then that is there personal need.

    I drive just fine without hearing outside ambient road noise. In fact, I see things happening blocks away before one could ever hear the result.

    You may argue that I may just be lucky, but here’s the acid test.

    If headphones impair a person’s driving ablility, then how is it deaf people are allowed to drive. Lacking a sense would make them a hazard on the road would they not?

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