Music on a bike is dangerous in traffic
Anyone who listens to music on a bicycle in traffic is up to ten times more likely to have an accident. Pedestrians and joggers are up to six times more at risk when wearing headphones. This is the conclusion of research by the Dutch CROW Bicycle Council (Fietsberaad), the knowledge center for the bicycle policy of the Dutch authorities. “What you hear in traffic is at least as important as what you see,” experts say.
Popular with young people
More than 70% of young people between 16 and 18 sometimes cycle around with earbuds and headphones. 15% even listens to music almost every ride. It is striking that the over-50s deliberately don’t do it in busy traffic situations. Older cyclists are two to three times more likely to leave their mobile phones or other equipment on the side-lines when they are on the road.
Let’s be clear: legally, you can cycle in Belgium while listening to music using headphones or earphones. However, the police advise against it. Research has indeed shown that there is an increased risk of an accident if you, as a cyclist or pedestrian/jogger, do not hear the traffic around you.
According to research from SWOV, the Dutch counterpart of the Belgian safety institute Vias, 19% of the cycling victims in the emergency department indicated that they were distracted. 3,5 to 5% admitted that they were absorbed in the music.
Limited amount of attention
That beats in traffic are dangerous is not surprising, knows professor Bas de Geus (VUB), who is researching commuting by bike and health. “We only have a limited amount of attention,” he says. “We can’t be 100% focused on the road and 100% enjoying our favorite music. That definitely has an impact, especially if another road user suddenly does an unexpected maneuver.”
It is also logical that more accidents involving cyclists occur when there was prior use of a smartphone or listening to music via headphones or earplugs. Trams are much less noisy than they used to be. And the new electric vehicles (cars, but also speed pedelecs and e-steps) can hardly be heard even without headphones.
Professor Jan Pauwels (KU Leuven), who researched the effect of loud music on young road users, tested the attention of young drivers and cyclists in a driving simulator. “One group listened to house music at 90 decibels; the others had their ears free. It turned out that the beats made cyclists and drivers drive faster unconsciously. They had also ridden less well and had been speeding.”
Another important thing to know: “In traffic, the auditory aspect is at least as important as the visual one. The 180 degrees in front of you are perfect for picking up with your eyes. But you need to hear the 180 degrees behind you – cars that sound their horns, other cyclists that ring. With earphones or headphones, you’ll lose that spectrum completely.”
Call for a law
Although various experts are insisting on the need for a law prohibiting the use of electronic music devices while cycling, for the time being, it does not look as if this call will be followed up. Flemish Minister of Mobility, Lydia Peeters (Open Vld), believes that the responsibility lies primarily with the road user himself.
“Moreover, it is difficult to be univocal in this respect,” the Cabinet says. “There are earphones with which you can perceive ambient noise. With other headphones, you can’t hear anything at all. Where do you draw the line?”
The happy medium
In several countries, the use of earbuds and headphones on bicycles has already been restricted. The police themselves advise you to try to find a happy medium for your own safety. For example, you can only plug in one earpiece, or set the volume low enough so that you can still hear the traffic.
The police in the Netherlands, where you are allowed to cycle with headphones or earplugs, also give that advice. “You are responsible for your own safety on the bike, but you may not obstruct or endanger other traffic. And cycling while listening to music can cause dangerous situations because it distracts you.”
Anyway, if the law did require that you should be able to hear while you operate a vehicle, deaf people would be prohibited from operating vehicles.