A cyclist with iPod hears better than a motorist driving

The Ride On magazine of Australia has found that cyclists listening to music or podcasts with headphones hear more ambient noise than motorists who don't have their radios on (photo above is courtesy of Ride On). This innovative investigation by Ride On revealed that the reality if contrary to a popular misconception - commonly held by police and insurance companies with no evidence - that cyclists are riding dangerously if they wear headphones.

Ride On used a synthetic "ear" to measure the volume inside and outside the car.

"With the ear-bud in our synthetic ear but not playing music, we measured the ambient traffic noise at 79dB. With the in-ear earphones, the traffic noise was 71dB," found Ride On. The volume was set to a "reasonable" level, about 3 clicks below full volume on the iPod, which they measured to be 87 dB. They then had a cyclist call out "Passing" and ring a bell. The tester outside the car with headphones on playing music heard the call, whereas the tester in the car with the motor running and the stereo on at a moderate level (69 dB) did not.

We quickly established that cars are remarkably soundproof. We measured the average peak of ambient traffic noise inside the car (with the motor running) to be 54dB, which is 26dB quieter than outside the car. We rang a bike bell right outside an open car window and measured it from in the car at 105dB. With the window closed, the same bell registered just 57dB.

The decibel is a logarithmic unit, which means that the difference increases as the decibels are higher. On the decibel scale, the smallest audible sound (near total silence) is 0 dB. A sound 10 times more powerful is 10 dB. A sound 100 times more powerful than near total silence is 20 dB. A sound 1,000 times more powerful than near total silence is 30 dB. Normal conversation is around 60 dB and a lawn mower around 90 dB. Thus ambient sound inside the car is about 100,000 times that of silence and the ambient sounds outside the car, even with headphones, are about 10 million times.

There are two things I take away from this: one, that riding with headphones are fine so long as the volume is reasonable, and, two, a cyclist is better off being prepared to stop or serve rather than ring a bell at a motorist with their window closed.


Interesting, tho not very surprising. Some car adverts boast about how "quiet" their drive is.

However the argument continues that cyclists should ideally be more tuned-in to sounds around them to avoid hazards, but then we get into a debate similar to helmet-use - putting the responsibility on just the cyclist to protect themselves and not on motorists to drive safer.

Thanks for posting that! Never mind the discussion on ipods and ear phones - but the measured inability of a driver to make out a ringing bike bell is worth teaching at my CANBIKE classes.

I never use a bell. I use my 'teacher voice' but use words I'd never use in class... Works.

You still hear better with nothing in your ears.

You know, it's funny, but you won't find a contrary claim anywhere in my blog post or the original article. It's not the point.

The point is that in a world where we always weigh the relative risk of things we do, we now know that the risk of reducing hearing while cycling with headphones won't even bring cyclists' perception of ambient noise down to the level of motorists. You don't hear a big uproar against sound proof cars and how motorists are endangering their lives and the lives of others. Yet we continue to go all paternalistic on cyclists because some of them use headphones.

In some, we've got bigger things to worry about.

I know for sure that if one is card carrying CNIB member, they definitely cannot obtain a driver's licence. But some of these people can still ride a bicycle even though their vision is not sufficient to drive a motor vehicle. My own aunt rides a bike and is a card carrying CNIB member who could not (by definition) qualify for a driver's licence, but no-one has ever had any issues about her riding a bicycle.

Do we disallow deaf people from driving or from riding a bike? No, we don't!
Do we impose any restrictions on deaf people when they drive or ride a bike? No, there are no special restrictions or requirements for a deaf person to drive a motor vehicle or to ride a bike.
Do we impose special restrictions on deaf people when they are out and about walking on our streets and sidewalks and other public spaces? None at all.

Then why does anyone make any kind of fuss about riding with music (or other) audio in one's ears while riding a bike, or walking around?

I'm sorry, but claiming that riding with earphones in is 'not as bad' in terms of safety or perception as it is made out to be is a bunch of self-serving sophistry. Should we then excuse drivers who wear them as well (many make no effort to hide this)?

I've seen enough fellow cyclists wearing earbuds and being oblivious as a result to know that it's not a great idea, particularly if, as you say, drivers are in a soundproof bubble.

Then, by that same logic, should deaf people be outlaw from driving and bike riding?
And should car makers be forced to remove the sound-proofing in cars, along with removing the radios?

Personally, I'd rather see more drivers using headphones -- It's better than having the music in their cars so loud that I car hear that music in my house!

What provisions are there to enable deaf people to become licensed drivers? Are they sometimes required to use adaptive equipment, special restrictions on driving, etc.?

Deaf people don't have a choice about being deaf, but they are able to drive and bike. Hearing drivers and cyclists have control over the amount of sound they allow to reach them, including the volume of music in the car and/or directly in their ears.

Saying that cyclists using iPods hear better than more sound-insulated drivers doesn't automatically validate the use of iPods (with headphones) on bikes; it just means that there are different levels of acoustic awareness going on. A driver can open a window or reduce the audio system's volume, but should be taking more care than a cyclist in any case because of the size and power of the vehicle compared to a bike. Any in-ear device, particularly in both ears, is an impediment to perceiving the full range of sound around the user and as such may constitute operation of a vehicle without due care and attention, although this is not explicitly set out in legislation.

We apply no restrictions whatsoever on deaf people who want to get a licence. They apply for and obtain the same licence in the exact same way as anyone else does. No special "anything" required.

If a deaf person has no restrictions then why do we have restrictions on hearing enabled people with regards to headphones? Sure, hearing can help in some situations, however hearing is not a requirement to be able to walk on our streets nor to operate a vehicle safely.

If hearing were so important to the safe operation of a vehicle then why we would allow deaf people to drive? And then why would we allow car makers to make their cars so soundproofed, or allow radios in cars?

And now we know that even with earphones in our ears, when we are riding a bike we can still hear more than those inside cars. So we've learned that wearing headphones while riding is not as bad as some would have us think. The mere act of wearing headphones and listening to audio entertainment while riding a bike is not the evil, rather it's allowing that audio to distract us from the more important task at hand that is the evil. But the same can be said about the radio in a car -- it's not the playing of the radio that's the evil but rather that the driver would allow themselves to be distracted by what's playing rather than focusing on the more important task of driving safely.The same can also be said of conversing with passengers while driving.

Many of us enjoy the background sound of music playing, or like to listen to news and such. We perform many of our daily tasks with this background music playing and it doesn't interfere with our work, or shopping, or conversations, or eating, or anything else that we do where there is background music playing. In fact we know that there are real and measurable benefits to having background music playing in many situations, including benefits to our concentration and focus. So why should we deny this pleasure to ourselves only when we are riding a bicycle?

Because having the audio source right in your ear blocks out sound to some extent, even if hearing is not entirely essential, and makes it harder to overcome the distracting effect of the audio. Earphones might not affect pedestrians' perception as much as soundproofing does inside a car, but they have certainly been a factor in collisions where they would arguably not have been (as) distracted if they had not been wearing them.

The real conclusion to be drawn from these studies is not so much that a cyclist with earphones 'hears better' than a driver in a car, but that the cyclist's hearing perception is not compromised as much as the driver's. Not really an endorsement of earphones.

Besides, if cyclists with earphones 'hear better', why do they have trouble hearing what other cyclists say when they are beside/behind them?

I'm not a deaf person, but I would assume that deaf people take care to visually check their surroundings before stepping off a curb.

Deaf people aren't grooving to the sound of ABBA in their heads (at least I don't think so).

Many of us enjoy the background sound of music playing, or like to listen to news and such. We perform many of our daily tasks with this background music playing and it doesn't interfere with our work, or shopping, or conversations, or eating, or anything else that we do where there is background music playing.

That's what you think. The last near-collision I had while riding my bicycle was with a pedestrian with earbuds who didn't hear me coming, and certainly didn't do a proper check before stepping out into the road against a red light.

The biggest two problems I find with earphones: they make it more difficult to judge how loud you are saying "on your left" prior to passing on a path and the risk that an at fault motorist's lawyer will convince someone that earphones contributed to the crash. However, I listen to news/weather/talk at volume low enough that it is sometimes drowned out by the wind and not music that I feel any need to dance to. In truth, it mutes the distractions of traffic, which can, in itself, become stressful and is certainly noisy.

Just to alter this red herring situation - and maybe still be practical: does anyone have experience with a handle-bar mounted radio that would play at a moderate setting? Sometimes I wish I could listen to my classical music station while riding....

Sure, maybe car drivers don't hear as well as cyclists with ear phones, but I still think it's a bad idea to wear ear phones when I'm riding my bike. Cyclists depend more on sound than car drivers - we ride a lot slower than cars so it's nice to be able to hear someone approaching you from behind, especially if it's a fast-moving car. I've also noticed cyclists with ear phones tend to be more distracted - they're more likely to cut people off or ride through a red light without looking, etc. When you're in a car, sound isn't as important since you have rear view mirrors and people are not passing from behind with as a big a difference of speed as when you're on a bike.

It's amazing how the same people can be so righteous about things that lead to a collision: a cyclist doing a dumb thing is most likely to only hurt himself, but a driver in the same situation will maim or even kill the other party. I think drivers as a group (I am one of them, by the way) should hang their heads in shame and mend their ways!

Here's from http://www.wheels.ca/feature/star-project-green-our-only-f...

We took the Nissan Leaf on an, albeit, short roadtrip for a girls daytrip o’ fun. And we even took a visiting New Yorker along with us to punch the fun up another notch. We quickly got over the quiet engine and the strangeness of driving a car that wasn’t our own (no fear here) and hit the road with careless abandon.
The Leaf offered plenty of room for the three of us, with lots of head space for us to bob up and down to the blaring tunes (adequate sound system and good air condition for summer road tripping).

While this study may suggest that earbud use doesn't block out ALL sound, and the point has been made about closed cars blocking more ambient sound than earbuds, don't we need to be MORE aware of our surroundings than drivers because we're at greater risk for injury?

Having tunes for the ride may make it more pleasant, but I'd rather have as much information as possible from my eyes AND ears about what's going on around me. If I need tunes for the road, I'll use my compact iPod speaker system (either in a handlebar bag or on the rear rack) or a music app on my phone (played on speaker).

Just my $0.02. Your mileage may vary....

I have always felt safer without anything in my ears when I ride as it gives me the ability to hear an approaching vehicle.

On the other hand, I now feel less aprehensive to use my ear buds when I drive.

'Rock Hard Ride Free'

I always wear earbuds when I ride, specifically because I can hear better with them in than not. By blocking the wind noise from entering my ear, I can hear the traffic and other ambient sounds much better.

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