How Dangerous Is It to Drive With Earphones?
January 31, 2005 10:49 PM   Subscribe

How dangerous is it to drive with earphones? I drive a noisy, noisy little car with a crappy stereo, and the tempation to just listen to my flash mp3 player with some Koss isolating earbuds is pretty strong, yet I don't want to endanger others or die in a fiery wreck. But at some point, with the car as noisy as it is, what's the difference?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total)
OK, I'll bite.
If my dearly beloved were to die, and it turned out that a contributing cause was the delay of an ambulance, fire engine, or squad car, and this delay was caused by some earbud-wearing driver's failure to yield to an emergency vehicle, I would agitate for criminal charges to be filed, and I would personally file a civil suit.
Admittedly, there are many other distracting factors that could cause one to overlook the presence of an emergency vehicle (e.g. cell phones, those stereos that rattle the quarter panels, the way the kids these days drive with their seats tipped way back, reading a book, watching a DVD, etc.).
If flashing lights were enough, we wouldn't need sirens. But we do. So plugging one's ears and injecting sound into them seems like a bad idea.
posted by seajay at 11:27 PM on January 31, 2005

I drive with earbuds, but I've taken to leaving one out so I can hear what's around me. It's a habit I got into working in a research lab where nothing happens for long stretches of time, but it's important to hear if someone needs me. Mostly I'm terrified at the thought of not hearing an ambulance or car as seajay mentioned, so even with just one in, the volume isn't so high I cant hear other noises as well.
posted by nile_red at 11:32 PM on January 31, 2005

In California at least, driving with headphones in both ears is illegal and will get you ticketed. Call you local police department and ask before doing something you'll regret.
posted by Ironwolf at 11:58 PM on January 31, 2005

Yeah, don't do it. Get an FM or Tape adapter for your MP3 player.
posted by krisjohn at 12:09 AM on February 1, 2005

The danger seems overstated. I think you have to honestly assess how much the music affects you. When listening through earphones, some people get completely lost in music and stop paying attention to what's going on around them. If you think that you fall into this category perhaps you won't notice that other cars are pulling over or you will forget to look periodically in your rear view mirror and so obstruct an ambulance. It seems unlikely, but it is possible. Even so, nile_red's suggestion is probably the most sensible.
posted by sic at 12:27 AM on February 1, 2005

It is harder both to have the correct acuity in terms of what is going around you generally, and to hear specific signs of danger coming, when sound is being pumped directly into your eardrums. Please don't use earbuds while driving. Buy a car stereo and use it at a reasonable volume. Just think about how it would look if someone jumped out in front of your car, through no fault of your own, and the police report said you had earbuds in.
posted by skylar at 12:33 AM on February 1, 2005

I feel like I'm jumping on you, but most accidents are caused by momentary, tiny distractions, like dropping an ear bud, spilling coffee. I'm pretty hard core on this.

I too had a noisy, noisy little car, one with no stereo. I bought some tiny, inexpensive speakers from radio shack. Good speakers would have been a waste. I think they were all of $25, so I wasn't even concerned about theft.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 1:56 AM on February 1, 2005

Many great film editors have said the same thing: a film's visual elements don't contribute as much to its sense of reality as its auditory elements. Verisimilitude is important in cinema, but it's indispensable in driving. Even with a stereo cranked up, you can still hear little outside noises that keep the external reality of the road as immediate as it should be.
posted by squirrel at 3:09 AM on February 1, 2005

Also, Anon doesn't just want to wear earphones, he wants ISOLATING earphones?

Thats a disaster waiting to happen.

I'm with the previous commenters that have said, if you're gonna do it, one ear only. And if so, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, use an open headphone that lets sound in.
posted by TTIKTDA at 4:11 AM on February 1, 2005

I vote for disaster waiting to happen, please don't

it's also illegal in most countries I've driven in
posted by matteo at 4:37 AM on February 1, 2005

It's not simply the case that loud music from speakers = music on headphones, regardless of whether you think they sound the same. There are really important psychological factors associated with auditory isolation from your surroundings.
The significant spatial differences in sound when using headphones lead to greater physical detachment from your surroundings. Don't do it.
posted by nylon at 6:05 AM on February 1, 2005

It's safe (and usually legal) if you keep one cup off. I passed police cars here and there on my paper route on my bike with walkman and one ear open, one with phones on.

Otherwise, no, stupid idea. Don't do it. Spend some money on your stereo.
posted by shepd at 6:41 AM on February 1, 2005

It's illegal in many states.
posted by waldo at 7:20 AM on February 1, 2005

Apart from being illegal, it's a bad idea. I've driven around with my cellphone's earbud in one ear and no sound coming through it. Even that is enough to make a change for the worse in how I process auditory cues.

Driving is a serious business. Don't tune it out.
posted by adamrice at 7:55 AM on February 1, 2005

why is the car so noisy? do you have a hole in the exhaust or a bad muffler? please, please don't tell me you have one of those "racing" mufflers. if you have a hole in the exhaust, you can try a patch kit from autozone or walmart. if it's a bad muffler, you should get that replaced. and if it's the last option, you should have spent money on the stereo, not the "performance mod."

of course, if it's the door seals, well, get some open air headphones or cheap speakers as suggested above.
posted by Igor XA at 8:02 AM on February 1, 2005

you should have spent money on the stereo, not the "performance mod."

Hey, now. I have a "racing muffler" on my car. I also have after-market intake and header. My car is loud as hell, but also has documented dyno gains from each modification.

Of course, it also lacks the hyperactive kazoo sound of riced-out Hondas because I actually *was* after performance, and not just being obnoxious. I get frequent compliments on just how good it sounds.

And driving with even one headphone on is just a bad idea, mmkay?
posted by jammer at 8:53 AM on February 1, 2005

I vote that it's stupid, but on the other hand, I do road cycling with headphones, and don't think that's dangerous at all (because the sound is never that loud; because the wind is mostly what you hear when you cycle; because there's very little lane changing in the cycling I do).
posted by ParisParamus at 9:35 AM on February 1, 2005

My Taurus is so well soundproofed, even without the stereo, I rarely hear sirens until they are right on top of me. My bit of tinnitus probably doesn't help either.
posted by mischief at 9:39 AM on February 1, 2005

Odd that listening to headphones with music is illegal (in some states), but talking on a cell phone headset is ok. Maybe if you only have one earbud in it's ok, but I imagine this would be a painful listening experience.
posted by knave at 10:06 AM on February 1, 2005

It sounds like the original poster doesn't want to invest in soundproofing the car or purchasing a stereo.

There are a number of things that can contribute to interior car noise, especially in older vehicles. Tire condition, rattles, lack of soundproofing in the carpet/trunk/hood/doors. Also the wheel wells and bottom of the car can be sprayed with sound dampening gunk. Soundproofing a car is expensive and time consuming. Also, some cars generate a lot of noise because of poor design. My 88 VW gets really loud at 4k rmps. It's a flaw with the model. As was mentioned, noise can come from the exhaust or even bad wheel bearings.

The cheapest way to soundproof is to go to a U-pull-it junkyard and find a luxury car with a detachable hood blanket. Then there is stuff I was referred to on this site in an earlier thread that is used for roofing that is a cheaper alternative to "brown bread" or other spendy solutions.

One of the problems with streaming to the radio is that if the car is already noisy, you have to crank the stereo up to nasty levels to hear the mediocre stream from the transmitter, which can be exhausting in its own right.

There's a good deal of research into the distractability of cell phones. Kevin Kelly claims that audio books don't have the same effect, which is anecdotal. Dolby built a business on the fact that something different happens when the left and right channels come through phones and are mixed by your brain. Perhaps that's the reason so much more displacement occurs.

There are vehicle operators that wear noise cancelling phones on public roads, especially certain military trucks.
posted by mecran01 at 10:38 AM on February 1, 2005

jammer, i didn't mean to put down legitimate auto tweaking. i'm aware that good modding doesn't necessarily result in loud-as-hell exhaust systems (m3's, although not modified, are relatively quiet. and last i checked, they spec pretty nicely.). but i can't help but laugh when i see some horribly underpowered and cosmetically ugly car with a racing muffler on it just because it's "cool." and for the most part, these cars fit the "noisy, noisy little car" description in the post. i'm not saying the poster drives such a car, but i was at least attempting to cover that option. i have friends that mod cars, and they do so with much more class than the average "ricer." my pointed remarks were more of a comment on those that modify for looks instead of real performance. if i were commenting on real racing mufflers, i would have left out the quotes.
posted by Igor XA at 11:52 AM on February 1, 2005

Ham radio operators are generally an exception to the "no earphone" rule. I'm not sure why, but it's a fun perq.
posted by u.n. owen at 2:07 PM on February 1, 2005

You didn't ask about motorcycles but ParisParamus mentioned cycling so I'm going to chime in anyway. See below for my car example.

On long road trips I ride my motorcycle with earbuds under my helmet, but with regards to distraction, I never, ever ride in town with them. Well, except this one time. I thought I could sneak through a nearby down with them on and it freaked me out a lot. On the highway you either have plenty of time to react to a hazard or it happens so quick that lack of earphones wouldn't have helped (deer, etc.). There's so much noise even with a helmet that a lot of motorcyclists where plain earplugs. But in a town/city you really have to pay attention.

Oh, and about 10 years ago I was driving on I-70 between Denver and Golden with headphones on. I got pulled over for it and even though he knew I was lying when I denied wearing them (I yanked them off as soon as I saw him- just as I was passing by), the trooper let me go. But it was close. I never tried that again. It's not worth the risk.
posted by friarjohn at 3:28 PM on February 1, 2005

There was a press release/newsblip from the U. of Utah today concerning research on cell users and response times. On average, cell users took 20 percent longer to brake, among other findings, and I imagine that transfers to the use of ear buds. Earplugs don't require any cognitive interaction, however, and could be worn loosely, enough to dampen the interior noise somewhat but not leave you driving "blind."

You could also mount small, decent speakers to your headrest.
posted by mecran01 at 7:40 PM on February 1, 2005

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