Driving and listening to music sounds like fun, right? It’s like jogging and music, right? Not so much, there are some key differences between these two, and the law might just be one of them.
Wearing headphones while driving might be legal in many US states, but it’s still dangerous in all of them.
We present the states that have laws regarding the prohibition of headphones and/or earbuds while driving later in this article, for now, we’ll just mention that they’re just 18 (not the majority) and we’ll offer some safety tips.
What Could Go Wrong?
The concerns of using such devices while driving your car are plentiful. First is the division of your attention. Sudden loud noises, trying to control the volume or select your favorite song can easily distract you with serious consequences. Determine a playlist and your optimal volume beforehand and if you absolutely have to mess with those, stop your vehicle and do it safely. Red lights usually don’t count in the eyes of the law.
Most ear plugging devices are designed to block external sounds in order to enhance their intensity. This is equally concerning to being distracted because you are being deaf. Imagine not being able to hear a horn, a fast approaching vehicle, the police or ambulance siren or simply a yell for attention. Save yourself the surprise and allow the sounds to reach you.
When you need to take a call, you should first stop the vehicle, and connect some kind of hands-free devices. Headphones with cables are very tricky because sometimes you have to hold them close to your mouth in order for the microphone to catch your speech. Ask yourself, can I really drive using just one hand?
They are also tricky because they can very easily be pulled off, without your intention and cause you to react suddenly, uncontrollably leading to an accident. Cables also tangle with other objects, so don’t leave your cell on the passenger seat and have the headphones’ cable hang all over the place.
Is There Any Legal Occasion?
Not all headphones are used with the same intention, which also means not all occasions are treated the same by the law. Devices that enhance the hearing ability and have navigational or communicational purposes are usually permitted, as long as not both ears are covered; hands-free devices are usually also permitted.
Basically, the laws follow the guidelines: If the device helps you drive safer to your destination, it’s permitted. If in any way, is impairing your hearing, especially if you are a professional driver, then it is illegal. Do your own, small research and make sure you know exactly what the laws of your state are.
So if I’m driving a car, I can use the stereo system, it’s not illegal, so it’s safe. Yes and no. It is legal, but it’s not safe if you overdo it. Turning the volume too high has the same effect as using headphones in both of your ears. Most external sounds are topped and your attention is easily divided. Now is the time to mention that your reaction time is also reduced either way.
Music or radio are usually harmless if you don’t have to shift through them to decipher the noises around you. On the other hand more engaging audio, like podcasts or audiobooks should really be avoided, even in low volume. They demand a high percentage of your precious attention or to be more accurate, you constantly have to shift your attention between driving and listening ending up doing both poorly.
The Need For Effective Hearing
Why do you think each time you are searching for the right house or a parking seat, you instinctively turn down the volume? Because your own body knows it will be less likely to miss something with undivided attention.
Humans, especially men, are not designed to multitask effectively, most people can’t recognize a friend while jogging and listening to music, you think you can react to threats while driving and dividing your attention? Don’t overestimate your abilities, you still have to operate within your human ability limits, no matter how good a driver you might be.
Hearing effectively while on the road is crucial, because it also reduces your reaction time, since it provides priceless, audio warnings before any visual stimulus, thus shortening your reaction time. On the road spatial skills are very important and in order to improve them, you have to realize that hearing and seeing are complementary.
We might be using our eyes to detect sudden threats, but the ears are the ones who orient the view to search for the threats. Sound gives you the direction of any possible, incoming threats and offers you that precious time that might actually separate a near miss from a serious accident.
What About Other Vehicles?
It is also illegal in most states to use headphones while riding a motorcycle, unless you are using helmets with built-in headphones. However, we recommend using them with caution, since you are more exposed on a motorcycle and you can afford less attention division. It is even more crucial to watch out for other people’s mistakes when driving a motorcycle and try to predict any sudden change of movement, so you have the chance to react calmly and safely.
Riding a bicycle might seem less dangerous; I mean you can’t speed as much as a car or cause as much damage in an accident, but again you are far more exposed, so don’t fool yourself, isolating from the environment isn’t wise. Even if you are extra careful, other people will also underestimate the danger and overestimate your reaction time, so you have to protect yourself from their blunders.
Most accidents with a bicycle, also involve other vehicles and collisions aren’t cyclist’s forte. Remember when riding a bike you are less protected than in a car and less prepared than on a motorcycle, you also don’t have the high speed to compel your attention. Being deaf equals to being blind. Being blind equals to… well, you get the idea.
States That Have Laws Prohibiting Audio Devices
So which states have laws regarding the use of headphones while operating a vehicle? We haven’t gone in any detail to present you each state’s exact law structure or language, that’s why we highly recommend that you check on your own for each state that interests you.
The following have active laws prohibiting the specific use of headphones or earbuds, but with no universal agreement (for example in Arizona it is illegal only for drivers transporting children to a healthcare facility, but in California, it’s illegal even while on a bicycle):
Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington.
Though not all those states have identical restrictions, the general rule mentioned higher above applies to most of these states. Having one free ear is legal, using for hearing aid, navigational or communicational purpose is legal, as is built-in helmets audio systems. The rest of the states have no laws regarding the use of hearing devices while driving, meaning it’s perfectly legal, though not always safe.
Laws In Europe
The laws in Europe are quite simpler. As long as the device you are using is hands-free, you have nothing to worry about, except in Sweden, where you’re OK without hands-free. Only Spain and France strictly forbid the use of headphones or earbuds.
Nowhere in Europe can you travel with a hand-held phone. Countries in Europe have some peculiar laws regarding driving, each one their own, so if you’re planning to go there soon, make a short research about the specific country beforehand and make sure you acknowledge all of them.
We took the liberty to summarize, add some more and present you a few safety tips for each time you drive with headphones.
- Never cover both ears (use the “mono” setting)
- Use hands-free devices ( e.g. cables may cause sudden moves when pulled by mistake)
- Don’t overdo it with the volume of your audio
- Car stereo systems can also distract you, keep the volume low
- Minimize the need to interact with the device, prepare beforehand, or stop your vehicle.
- Avoid engaging in high emotionally conversations and keep your eyes on the road
- Don’t underestimate your need for effective hearing while traveling
- Underestimating the dangers of the road is the main cause of accidents, so don’t
- Check your own the laws of your state, since each one has their own individual language.
And always remember your attention is the most important element of safe driving, don’t trade it for some pointless fun or trying to multitask with podcasts and recorded files, because you end up trading your safety and physical integrity. You then become a threat yourself for your passengers and the rest of the people around you.
We might have been talking about legality and driving, however safety of ourselves and others should be our foremost concern, when we are traveling, no matter the distance. So, even if it’s legal to do so, avoid isolating yourself, keep senseless distractions in check and drive responsibly. Being more conscious while driving makes the journey shorter and ensures you go back home in one piece.