The following piece by Brendan Kevenides originally appeared as part of his Cycling Legalese column on Urban Velo.
People love to listen to music and it comes as no surprise that some people like to do it while riding their bicycle. What is the legality of combining bikes and music? It all depends on how and where you’re listening.
Q:I like listening to tunes while I ride. Is that illegal?
Generally, listening to music while riding a bike is not illegal. However, to know for sure whether doing so is okay or not, two questions must be answered: 1) How are you listening to your music? 2) Where are you?
If you are listening to music via a set of speakers mounted on your bike, then you are okay everywhere. I am not aware of any jurisdiction that bans the use of speakers on bikes for the purpose of listening to music, or anything else for that matter. (Of course, if you’ve got the Justin Bieber cranked to ear splitting levels you may run afoul of local noise ordinances and good sense/taste.) When it comes to bikes and music, what some jurisdictions regulate is the delivery method; in other words, headphones.
A few places have outlawed the use of headphones while biking on public roadways; for example, Florida and Rhode Island. Others have said it is okay so long as you have a headphone inserted in one ear only. California law states, “A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs, in both ears.” New York also allows headphone use in one ear only. In many states, it is perfectly legal to wear headphones while biking, such as in Oregon and Washington D.C. In 2011, an Oregon legislator, Rep. Michael Schaufler (D-Happy Valley) proposed a bill that would have made it illegal throughout the state to operate a bicycle “while wearing a listening device that is capable of receiving telephonic communication, radio broadcasts or recorded sounds.” Doing so would have resulted in a $90 penalty. Apparently, he told BikePortland.Org that he got the idea for the bill when he “just saw some guy driving down the street on their bike with their headphones on and thought, ‘He could get run over.’” He explained that to him it was “a safety issue.” The bill went nowhere.
Interestingly, in some places the applicability of headphone prohibitions to cyclists is misunderstood. That is the case in my home state, Illinois. Some well intentioned folks claim that it is illegal to bike with headphones here. For example, the City of Chicago states on its website that cyclists should never use earphones because it “is not only dangerous, it’s illegal.” That’s wrong. Neither city ordinance nor state law ban the use of headphones while riding a bike. The only statute that references headphones (it actually uses the term “headset receivers”) states that, “No driver of a motor vehicle on the highways of this State shall wear headset receivers whiledriving.” The emphases are mine. Under Illinois law, a bicycle is not a motor vehicle. Therefore, the prohibition of headphone use does not apply to people on bikes.
Perhaps the more interesting question is not whether it is legal, but whether it is wise to bike on city streets while wearing headphones. There are some important reasons not to do so. There are so many things the urban bicyclist must be attuned to while riding in the city: Trucks, cars, buses, potholes, pedestrians, lights, signs, little dogs, the weather, etc. It may be unwise to diminish one of your senses while navigating a bicycle through this gauntlet of hazards and distractions. By plugging your ears and pouring music into your fully occupied brain while biking you might increase your chances of getting into an accident. In fairness, however, I am not aware of any studies that suggest this is true. Our firm has not seen many cases in which the bicyclist’s use of headphones caused or contributed to cause a crash. On the other hand, if you are involved in a crash, particularly with a motor vehicle, and were found wearing headphones you may harm you chances of successfully seeking compensation for any injuries you receive. Certainly, the driver and his/her attorney will try to suggest that your inability to hear contributed to cause the crash and that compensation should be denied or at least diminished. You and your attorney would be best off not having to deal with the headphone issue should it become necessary to bring a claim or lawsuit.
I am cynical about the motives of those who would make biking with headphones illegal, like Rep. Schaufler in Oregon. I tend to doubt that the safety of the cyclist is the motivating factor behind such proposals. I suspect that the real concern is preventing sound impervious cyclists from slowing motor vehicle traffic. In other words, when I honk, get out of my way. Biking through the city should be pleasant, and for many, listening to music is a great way to ride and feel relaxed. Still, the benefits of headphone use are probably outweighed by the risks.