Bone Conduction Headphones: Safe, Legal or Reckless?

If you do a quick search for earbuds or headphones on Commute by Bike, you likely will not be surprised to learn that we cover the controversial topic of cycling with headphones about once a year. Posts appear on CBB as early as 2006 to discuss the logic and legality of riding while wearing sound-restricting devices. At this point, starting a conversation about this divisive issue is a bit like running a story about the Kardashians on the cover of Us Weekly – you’ve heard it all before. Or you couldn’t care less. But, secretly, you just have to know what the latest gossip is.(Please keep reading. Despite my clever analogy, this article contains more useful information and less revealing photographs than your typical Us Weekly story.)

Source: AfterShokz
Source: AfterShokz

In August 2014, Melanie Colavito reported on the subject from a social scientists perspective. She cited a recent study that sought to understand the sensory experiences of a cyclist navigating the urban environment, and ultimately drew the same conclusion that many of us have being drawing since the iPod hit the market and made living dangerously so tempting: “Whether or not it’s safe to ride a bike and listen to music with headphones at the same time really depends on the person and the context.”Melanie expanded on this inconclusive conclusion. She explained that it’s possible for people to listen to music and to be hyper-aware of their surroundings at the same time, and that it is also possible for people to ride without headphones and without any real awareness of their surroundings as well. Therefore, whether or not someone is wearing headphones isn’t, in and of itself, indicative of whether or not that someone is a safer or a more aware rider than someone who is not wearing headphones.So what’s the latest gossip, you ask? Bone conduction headphones. While this technology, which sends sound through the bones of the skull to the inner ear rather than piping sound directly into the ear canal, has been around for some time, there has been an explosion of products recently that are being marketed specifically to cyclists and other athletes who engage in outdoor or group activities. There are sporty varieties, standard varieties, and, of course, hipster varieties. There are corresponding taglines, “Practice Safe Cycling,” and misleading headlines, “Concept Headphones That Wont Get You Killed While Biking.” And there’s new cause to discuss whether or not listening to music while you ride is safe or legal or reckless.

Source: AfterShokz
Source: AfterShokz

Bruce S. Deming, who is an avid cyclist in addition to being an attorney who focuses on bicycle accidents in the Washington, DC area, offered his insight on the issue: “As is often the case, technological advances often outpace the law. In the case of ‘bone phones,’ the same appears to be true. Since they do not appear to convert electrical energy to sound waves per say, and also because they do not sit in the ear, they do not meet the definition of earphones under the Virginia Code [ 46.2-1078].” In Maryland, where headphones and earphones are prohibited on roadways but permitted on bike paths, there is a stated exception in the applicable law that allows for the use of “personal hearing protectors” on the road as long as they “do not inhibit the wearer’s ability to hear a siren or horn from an emergency vehicle or a horn from another vehicle.”Despite the fact that Deming believes that bone conduction headphones are, technically, currently legal in Virginia and Maryland (please note that laws vary by jurisdiction, and the language used in other state laws may differ), whether or not they are safe is a separate issue. “In my opinion,” Deming says, “listening to music while riding is enjoyable, but a distraction from your focus. While these bone phones are likely less dangerous because they don’t impair the auditory canal, they still provide a distraction that takes the brains focus away from the complex tasks at hand. In my opinion, the enjoyment they provide isn’t worth the risks.”And there you have it – fresh fodder for the headphones-while-cycling debate. If you were firmly in the ‘no headphones, ever’ camp before, does the concept of bone conduction audio change your opinion? If you’ve been riding with standard in-ear buds for years, will you make the switch? Is marketing headphones to cyclists, regardless of the technology, irresponsible? Are you still very content with the boom box that you have bungee-corded to your handlebars and you don’t know why we even bother to have this discussion? Let us know your thoughts below.

Source: AfterShokz
Source: AfterShokz

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9 thoughts on “Bone Conduction Headphones: Safe, Legal or Reckless?”

  1. JohnnyK says:

    To be honest I don’t think it matters if you have headphones or not. People in automobiles or on motorcycles or any other motorized vehicle cannot hear you if you are wearing headphones or not.

    The law here says we can only have one ear covered by headphones but nothing about earmuffs or loud music while operating a vehicle on the road, so what was the point of that law again? I think restricting headphones impedes my right to freedom of speech and should be unconstitutional that is what they said about being able to play loud music from motorized vehicles we bicyclist should have the same rights so what if my speaker is next to my ear.

  2. Ted Johnson says:

    Is there any argument against headphones that isn’t based in protecting people on bicycles from people in cars?

    If you are distracted, you might not hear a car that could injure or kill you — whether it’s the driver who doesn’t see you, or it’s you who distractedly turns in front of a car.

  3. CPJ says:

    As background, I have been riding for at least two decades while enjoying music through headphones of various sorts. The one (very spectacular) accident I have been in was the result of drunk students walking against a red light, and an oncoming car turning left in front of me. I swerved to miss the students and got clipped by the turning car.

    Anyway…I have thought about this issue a great deal in the years following that, and in my careful observations while riding I do notice that the “whirring” sound of normal cars seems to come in a separate lower register of my hearing. It doesn’t seem to matter what type of music, or the volume…if I pay attention to that low whir, I can almost always know a car is behind me before looking in my mirror. The great exception to this is those g’yat damned hybrid cars. Those things scare the bejeebus out of me due to their silence. Especially since I am so fine-tuned to the “whir”. Parking lots plus hybrids backing out is a really dangerous situation.

    That’s my $0.02.

    Chris from DE

  4. Burnhamish says:

    When I was 13 I would ride around with a cassette player in one hand. Fast-forward 30 or so years and I acquired the [since discontinued] iHome iH85 “Water Bottle” speaker for the iPod Classic. Traffic noise easily drowns out the music at its highest volume, which if fine because then I pay more attention to traffic. On a clear road, I can easily hear the music, as well as cars approaching from the rear (hybrid or not, tire noise is tire noise). Listening to music adds another task to your already busy brain (regardless of whether you are in a car or on a bicycle). I think headphones would reduce the more important outside noise too much for my comfort. Soon I will spring for a decent portable Bluetooth speaker for my smartphone. So, I guess I’m saying music is fine, but I’m in the boombox-on-the-handlebars camp.

  5. Chan Jer Ping says:

    If listening to music is a distraction to riding a bicycle, then listening to music or radio while driving is also a distraction to the act of operating a motorized vehicles. Shouldn’t it be banned for drivers too?

  6. morlamweb says:

    @Chan Jer Ping: no one’s talking about banning music for anyone here, either for bicyclists or motorists. The question here is whether the new bone-conduction headphones are in any way safer than other types of headphones.

  7. George says:

    I dunno. I ride in NYC, and I wear an over-the-ear, bluetooth head set when I ride. I find that, at the right volume, I can hear everything happening around me, including pedestrian conversation.

    I also find that, contrary to music pulling focus from my task, it helps keep me locked-in. No music, my mind wanders away on it’s own. My actions become rote. I’m often considerably less aware. Not so good when riding in an urban environment. With music, I more often stay in the moment – present.

    I know that’s anecdotal, but I’ll take hearing 70% of what’s going on around me over being 1000 miles away in my head, any day.

  8. Thomas D says:

    Thanks Stacey for a very intelligent post that provokes some thought. This subject is more nuanced than one might think. I always listen to music while cycling and I am always very tuned to my surroundings. Also, there are open ear options. You might like this post about safer choices for cyclist headphones –

  9. Joe says:

    I use bone conduction headphones as a means to listen to GPS directions when making deliveries on a bike. I’ve never used them for music. I don’t see how that is any more dangerous than mounting a cell phone and taking my eyes off the road to look at the GPS.

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