Tips & Resources
Is riding a bike with headphones in dangerous and distracting?
With help from RMIT University, we tested how much road noise you can hear while riding with headphones and listening to music.
This article first appeared in Bicycle Network’s Ride On magazine – “An ear on the traffic”, 2012.
Measuring the urban soundscape
On a busy arterial road, cars and trucks surge past in jostling packs. The occasional coach and tram add to the din and motorbikes screech through gaps. Bike riders belt along the bike lane. The waves of noise ebb and flow. This is the urban soundscape.
We visited this busy road to test how much of this soundscape is deadened by wearing earphones while you ride, and as an interesting comparison, how it compares to car drivers using their music systems.
On our test street (St Kilda Road, Melbourne) the waves of noise peaked at about 80 decibels (dB). Our test car (Nissan X-Trail 2005) was parked on the same street.
We were equipped with a decibel meter and a synthetic model ear specifically created for us by our regular collaborator at RMIT Industrial Design, Dr Scott Mayson. The ear was designed to fit the decibel meter in the back and earphones in the front.
How much can you hear?
It was immediately obvious that the type of earphones used make a big difference to what is heard. The ear-bud type that sits in the outside of the ear canal, let in more outside noise than the in-ear type that plugs into the ear canal.
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.
We also 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.
Using our own taste as a guide, we established that a reasonable volume for listening to music through our earphones while riding at our location was three clicks down from the maximum volume of our iPod, which turned out to be 87dB; greater than the average peak of the ambient noise.
We then set up with testers 10 metres apart. One called out “Passing”, then rang a bike bell, and neither registered on the decibel meter above the ambient noise. Despite this, when a tester put the ear-bud earphones in and played music at 87dB, they could clearly hear their fellow tester’s call out, and the ringing of the bike bell.
The call and bell could also be heard with the in-ear earphones, but only faintly.
What was startling, however, was what could be heard from the car with its stereo on at what was perceived as a moderate level; (69dB). Our driver was unable to hear our tester, stationed 10 metres away, calling out “Passing”, or the bike bell. Without the car stereo on it was just possible to hear the call and bell; it registered at a similar level to having the in-ear headphones in.
Is it safe to ride with headphones?
Bicycle Network’s relatively simple test found that riding with headphones at a reasonable level does not reduce the amount of road noise you can hear to less than that of drivers.
It is important to note that while you can still hear a reasonable amount of road noise while riding with headphones, you should never play with your device while riding (it’s also illegal in many states).
You need to be aware of what is happening around you, which means looking at the road or bike path rather than a screen.
- A bike rider with in-ear earphones playing music at a reasonable volume hears about the same outside noise as a car driver with no music playing, but more than a car driver playing music.
- A bike rider with ear-bud earphones playing music at a reasonable volume hears much more outside noise than a car driver, even when that driver has no music playing.
- Ear-bud earphones set at a reasonable volume still allow riders to clearly hear the warning sounds of other riders.
Where and when we did the test
Test location: St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Time: Thursday 2:00pm – 4:00pm
Car: Nissan X-Trail 2005
Music: “Lust for life” Iggy Pop
All measurements were made in dBA.
A bit about decibels
Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale and can’t be simply added and subtracted. Here’s a guide to the decibels of familiar sounds:
0dBA: the softest sound you can hear
20dBA: a whisper
60dBA: ordinary speaking
90dBA: a lawn mower
110dBA: a rock concert
Bicycle Network’s riding with headphones test was conducted in 2012. This article was originally published in the June-July 2012 edition of Ride On magazine.