Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mother, Can You Hear Me?

Installment 2 of my personal perspective on the silly things people do on their bicycles that can make things hard for everyone.

Not long ago, I was riding along Valencia St. when I noticed the rider just ahead of me was a woman I know. She was about 50 feet ahead of me, so I sped up and called out to her. She didn't hear me, so I picked up the pace a bit and called again. Nothing. I gave her my New York taxi yell (it is quite impressive, you should hear it). Nothing. Finally I caught up to her and passed to the left and said "hi!". She just about jumped out of her skin and nearly crashed.

"Don't sneak up on people like that!' she yelled at me.

"I didn't! I have been yelling your name for half a block!"

"I have my earbuds in. I can't hear anything."

"Then why do you wear them?"

"Well I can hear stuff, just not you."

Time To Cross
Not my friend. Just someone with earbuds.

And there you have the issue that we will address in today's "How To Not Ride Really Badly" lesson. If you can't hear me hollering 50 feet away, you can't hear anything.

Coffee Rider

This guy above was a really nice guy I ran into one Bike To Work Day. His music was so loud I could hear it on my bicycle over the traffic of Market Street. He was quite startled by my presence, too. Entirely because he couldn't hear me next to him. I am pretty sure he was lip reading when I took this picture.

Plugged In

Just before I took this picture, this woman was passed by a frustrated bus driver. I am not convinced she heard the bus next to her as she flinched and swerved as it passed her. I am not sure how anyone would be comfortable not knowing a 60 foot long bus weighing 31,500 lbs (unloaded!!) with a frustrated driver who is late is coming up behind them.

She Has Tunes In Her Pocket

In California, wearing headphones or earbuds in both ears, while driving or riding a bicycle is illegal (CVC 27400). Over an above that, it is stupid. When you can not hear anything other than Lady Gaga or This American Life it means you lose the one sense that can warn you ahead of time there is trouble. How many times have I not hit someone passing me on the right only because I heard their squeaky chain coming up behind?

We Wait

People use the example of the deaf being able to do things without hearing. It is a silly example. Someone who is deaf has adapted to their lack of hearing and has found ways to make sure they know what is going on around them. Those who are totally into the Tupac blaring in their heads... not so much. They are distracted by the very engaging music and usually forget that the rest of the world is still out there. The woman above is a prime example- she didn't hear the car in cross traffic running the red light when it was time for us to go. It could have been really ugly.


Pet Carrier

While there is the argument that driver's should always assume that others can't hear them, or that they may hit a vulnerable road user, I don't think that absolves road users from paying attention to their own, and others safety. It is illegal to drive with headphones in Portugal, Spain, Germany, but I could not easily find information about its legality on a bicycle. The Dutch ask us not to when we ride there-

big, readable one here

James and I were talking about the issue of hearing while riding the other day. We have both taken up motorcycle riding again, after many years away. We had both noticed the same thing- we were each disturbed by our inability to hear the cars around us due to our full face helmets, road noise and wind. We have become so accustomed to being able to hear everything around us while bicycle riding that we were disturbed by our inability to do this on the motorcycle. Neither of us realized just how much we had come to depend on our hearing while riding around and neither of us felt safe when it was taken away.

And The Band Keeps Rolling

So, if you want music on your ride, maybe you should just take the band along with you. Or sound up your bicycle and share the love! Hendrix is so much better when you can hear what is going on around you!

cross posted at VĂ©lo Vogue


  1. I am of the "one thing at a time" crowd. It's a small crowd. When I ride my bike I ride my bike and when I listen to music I listen to music. I wasn't always this way and I am sometimes surprised I made it to this enlightenment.
    When I see someone with ear-buds I instantly think "Darwin Award". I won't tell you what I think if I see a cigarette. It's not flattering.

  2. Hear, hear, I'm on board.
    When I was 16 and learned to drive (FYI I am more of a driving enthusiast than probably 98% of humanity and take it very, very seriously), I learned to drive on an old manual 3 on the tree, it didn't even occur to me to turn on the radio for almost a year because I WANTED TO PAY ATTENTION TO DRIVING. But I was a cyclist long before, so maybe that's why it just made sense.

  3. It is illegal in the State of Florida... But then again most things are illegal here. The only things I know for sure that are legal here are the rights of those that have or believe in, Guns God and Cars. You'd think that a State in the shape of penis would be more liberal in their thinking.

    (Section 316.304(1), F.S.)

    No person shall operate a bicycle while wearing a headset, headphone or other listening device, other than a hearing aid or instrument for the improvement of defective human hearing.

  4. Not sure if it's illegal where I am or not...but it IS crazy to wear earbuds in both ears when you ride (to me)

    I think the "one good earbud" product is pretty cool, but as long as I can go to the dollar store and clip off the left earbud and just use the right for $1...I guess that's the way I will continue to roll on my pleasure rides. On my commutes, I won't ear and earbud - it's less than 1/2 hour anyway.

  5. You've GOT to be able to "hear to the rear" - on BOTH sides. Either that or make sure you've got REAL good insurance and you don't mind a bit of pain every now and then.

  6. great column & pics! hearing that door click just might save you life or at least stop you from being doored.

  7. i used to listen to one ear bud in, but even then, meh. i have gotten off that train.

    also, i rented a car recently to attend a first birthday party in sonoma county. i had to roll one window down because, like you, i'm so used to riding that hearing absolutely nothing when i rolled up the windows was rather disturbing to me. i felt too disconnected.

  8. I don't ride with earbuds (actually I don't like earbuds at all, only headphones, and those would look goofy on a bike), I have to say this beforehand.

    There is a lot of scaremongering involved in wanting to stop cyclists using earbuds in traffic. And this says more about today's car centric society than about cycling.

    I a german speaking Usenet newsgroup someone has made an experiment comparing earbuds or even headphones on a cyclist to a person sitting in a car (with comparably loud music, normal radio listening volume, being played).

    Surprise: The cyclist *with* headphones did hear a lot more than the motorist in his acoustically isolated car.

    So if you want to stop cyclists from using earbuds, please consider prohibiting car radios, or even requiring driving with a window open ;)

    Would the woman you know have heard your shoutuing, with the background noise of her motor, and a the radio turned up, if she had been driving instead of riding a bike with earbuds?

    Also: Many people are using headphones for the hands free of their cellphone, motorists and cyclists alike. In that case hearing your surroundings is not really problematic (though distraction from phone calls might be).

  9. I stress to my kids (who love to ride like I do) "God gave you 5 senses... and when you're riding a bike, your ears are ALMOST as good as your eyes. Use both of them equally!"

    I dont' have the best eyesight, but my hearing is TOP NOTCH. Plus, why would anyone not want to hear the wind, the trees, the birds, the conversations going on around them. That's all part of the ride...

  10. I'm with you on this: I use my ears all the time when riding, not just listening to cars moving, but the telltale click of a car door being opened, the sound of engines starting, a childs bike bouncing off a pavement between parked cars...

    I ride regularly with a deaf person, and he compesates for his lack of hearing by using his eyes a lot more: his style is different to a hearing persons style. If people with headphones can adopt that style, then maybe, but even then I'm not convinced.

    But then, I prefer birdsong and trees to any music anyway.

  11. True story: I'm biking to work two years ago. Quick shoulder check prior to a left turn, I see nothing. But there's still an instinctive hesitation before I do the turn. I'm on autopilot so it takes a few milliseconds for my higher brain functions to kick in and realize that I HEAR A GRAVEL TRUCK RIGHT BEHIND ME.

    I skipped work and went straight to my eye doctor instead. After many "hmms" and "ahhs" and "ohhhh" he sent me to a neurologist.

    After nearly $3000 in consults and tests, I discover tissue near my optic nerve in the left eye was inflamed, putting pressure on the nerve and creating a blind spot large enough for, well, a truck to drive through. Very odd sensation looking back to see nothing but empty road, when your ear tells you something very different.

    That's my long winded way of saying I agree with you.

  12. Visibility, obeying traffic laws, and defensive bicycle riding are the most effective safety measures. Depending on sound is a very small fraction of the safety equation in a noisy urban environment. Very few people would have enough reaction time to get out of harms way from an approaching motor vehicle if they depended on hearing senses. How about some science and statistics to backup the safety impact on urban cyclists wearing earbuds.

  13. I have to second ausserirdischegesund. I do try to avoid headphones that block the ear canal, but I will use them in a pinch if I can't find anything else and there's something I really want to be listening to. I understand why some people wouldn't want to, but we all make our choices about what an acceptable risk is. I've seen many contentious statistics about various bike activities like wearing a helmet and riding alongside parallel parking, but I haven't seen headphone use stats yet. Nevertheless, bike riding has so many benefits to the rider, not to mention fringe benefits for the environment and traffic congestion, that cautioning people against an activity that might make cycling more enjoyable to someone, and therefore might make them more likely to do it, is something to be done only if you are certain that the activity is demonstrably more dangerous than not cycling at all.
    It certainly seems like riding with headphones would be more dangerous than riding without, but to what extent? Enough to justify trying to scare people out of the behavior? For my part, while I do feel that I can often hear motor traffic with or without headphones, I find that I can't tell from the sound whether or not they are going to pass safely. I try to maintain a path that will facilitate passing when feasible or take the lane when passing is not feasible. I will likely hear the bus behind me, but it won't cause me to veer to the right because I am already as far to the right as I deem safe.
    Also I use a mirror. It is my favourite piece of safety equipment. I feel less comfortable riding without it, and I tell anyone who asks how much I like it, but I never tell anyone that they shouldn't bike without one because frankly I don't know if that's true. I only know that I feel safer with it.
    As has been said, by you and by ausserirdischegesund, there are other parts of traffic with less ability to hear than a cyclist with or without headphones. If I'm going to encounter traffic with compromised hearing, I would much rather they be on a bike then in a motorized vehicle, so kudos to the people who ride, and if music enhances your ride and makes you more likely to do it, then I won't tell you not to listen.

  14. Hey, its not illegal to use headphones in germany. Its only illegal to use them in a car. On a bike its ok. The police doesn't like it but it's not forbidden.
    I like out to ride with music to shut off all trafficnoise. But I'm very very alert for my surroundings and I compensate for my lack of hearing with full attention to the traffic. So not more risk than cycling without attention or daydreaming.

  15. @tyea, I'm not aware of any studies for cyclists, but some (mostly unreliable) research is available in this arena for drivers. Hearing impaired men seem to have 80% higher accident rate than unimpaired men; women have about the same accident rate whether hearing impaired or not.

    Suggestive but not conclusive -- there's evidence that law enforcement are both more likely and less likely to charge deaf drivers in accidents (more likely in that paternalistic cops feel like they should protect the handicapped drivers from further harm -- something cyclists should be familiar with; less likely in that cops feel sorry for the deaf driver and write the report up as "just an accident.")

  16. There's another 'syndrome' that a motorist or cyclist who uses his earphone or cellular phone while driving a car or riding a bike respectively may experience . It's called "INATTENTIONAL BLINDNESS". This poses danger to all around him (/her).;_ylt=A0oGkmb7SZlO1xkApUxLBQx.?p=inattention+blindness&fr2=sb-top&fr=yfp-t-702&type_param=


  17. With reference to:

    In the last paragraph', "Broader Implications' there's a line which reads:

    'Recent evidence suggests that talking on a cell phone, for example, dramatically increases the probability of missing an unexpected object (Scholl et al, 2003).'

  18. So what has wearing earplugs in public got to do with Inattentional Blindness?

    When we cut out sounds from our surroundings (esp. in public/ in the open) we also remove one of the important things that could alert us (homo-sapiens) of danger (and of 'other' wonderful things :D). We lose partially the totality of focus we should have for our well-being.

    So let our senses (plus common sense) funtion as they should to protect us from danger(s), give quicker and better responses , and greater enjoyment of this world.


    Ps;: Sorry to put what I have/had to say in 'fragments' ... I'm having a hectic work-time when the world's ecomonies are 'fluxxy' (<- no such word ,I think's self-coined :D)

    Have a nice day and ride your bike carefully and be happy (as I am ? :D heehee)

  19. Forgive me for my 'irritating trade-mark' ... (existence of) typograpical errors ... grrrr .. :p !
    Btw., "partially the totality" should read " the integrity"

  20. You know lots more electric cars are coming in the next few years. They are almost silent...they're pretty common here in Santa Monica already.

    I almost never hear the crunch of gravel under the tires before the car is right at my side.

    Earbuds will make even that small warning inauadile.

    A shoulder check is nescessary before moving left.

    Eric W

  21. I've use ear buds once to listen to my Ipod. Love having music during my ride but not being able to hear what was coming up from behind left me a lit unnerved. The multiuse path in my town is frequented by lots of pedestrians and dog walkers wearing ear buds. I try to alert them with my bike bell (seems so much polite than my harsh yell) but usually the only one who hears me is the dog.

  22. I don't know how people ride with headphones. I know that some people put mirrors on their bikes, but since I have a folding bike, I haven't, and if I couldn't hear, i wouldn't know what's going on behind or to either side of me - seeing lets me know only one very small piece of the landscape - hearing lets me know a whole lot more. But then I sometimes pass people in cars who have 2 earphones in too...

  23. It has been a trend. Especially on bikers.