Kevin Schön

Response by Kevin Schön – October 28, 2014

People who cycle with headphones regularly receive complaints about it – or at least are considered insane. I am one of those people.

Yes, I wear headphones when I ride my bike. And every now and then I get insulted because of it. Mostly from people in cars. Why they call me names? I guess they think I hadn’t noticed their honking when they drove up from behind. However, I did hear them, but I still didn’t jump off the road like they probably had wished me to. Rather, I confidently kept my position in the middle of the lane. Sometimes they also feel this urgent need of having to educate me: it’s illegal! And crazy anyway! What they somehow didn’t notice was that they had to open their window and turn down the music before being able to talk to me.

But even among cyclists wearing headphones is controversial. Basically you can find two positions on this: people who think of us as crazy and irresponsible (I’m looking forward to the shitstorm after this article!) and people who simply use their headphones. But isn’t it at least illegal? In Germany, when it comes to speakers, the same rules apply for all types of vehicles: you may listen to music but only as loud as it won’t block your perception of the surrounding traffic. Therefore, cycling with headphones is permitted – as long as you don’t turn up the music too loud. However, you will have to check for yourself if this is also the case for your jurisdiction.

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But even if it isn’t permitted in your country or state: It should be! I don’t wear my headphones simply because it’s legal – I just love listening to music. Like movies life gets better with a decent soundtrack. And particularly longer rides are just more enjoyable with music in your ears – or an interesting podcast.

What about disadvantages? Doesn’t it at least make surrounding sounds quieter? It does, but how is that disadvantageous? Ambulances, for example, are incredibly loud – after all, they are supposed to be heard by drivers in closed cars. And regular cars I can notice just as well. They just bother me less. The low-frequent droning of cars is less daunting and less annoying with attenuating music. This even makes it easier for me to not let myself be pushed off the road, riding more self-confident and anticipatory. When I’m not wearing headphones, I repeatedly get adrenaline rushes when overtaken by accelerating motor vehicles and feel harrassed when motorists get too close behind me. It’s annoying and and can also be dangerous. Also, in case you were wondering: Yes, I can still here other cyclists ringing – and that is unlike most car drivers who rarely hear my bell even in the most critical situations.

Automakers go through a lot of effort to isolate the inside of cars from disturbing noise as much as possible. After all, it is their customer who sits inside their car. On the outside the intensity of noise doesn’t matter as long as it complies with EU limits. And these limits? Well, lawmakers are not particularly ambitious to pressure automakers for quieter cars. A while ago, negotiations on such limits were interrupted because of signs of corruption. The chairman of the responsible commission had used a PowerPoint presentation which came directly from Porsche. And the current law works like this: if a car is very loud (like sport cars), then it does get special treatment: it gets allowed to be louder than other cars. In order to be able to exploit these generous limits, Audi even equips exhaust pipes with additional speakers.

All this has nothing to do with technical neccesities. Why should I let myself be bothered by all that avoidable noise? I happily reject. With music I cycle noticeably less stressful and arrive more relaxed. That makes my life better – maybe even longer.

Kevin Schön
Kevin Schön

Kevin Schön is a sociologist addressing urbanism, mobility and digitization. He's co-founder of the Berlin Institute for Mobility and Society, an editor of Urbanist Magazine, loves dipping pastries in coffee and playing with leading-edge technology.

Cover Image: Sascha Kohlmann / Woman with Headphones / flickr / CC-BY-SA 2.0