Earbuds and the law, state by state
February 6, 2007 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Am I a criminal if I listen to my iPod via earbuds while driving?

Does anyone know the legality of driving while listening to an mp3 player via earbuds? I'm sure it varies state-by-state and maybe even town-by-town. Hands-free units for cell phones, many of which use earbuds, are mandated in some places, but these (generally) only cover one ear. So, by that logic, is listening to an mp3 player with only one earbud acceptable (and/or a loophole)?

This is mostly hypothetical, as I use an iTrip. But, for places where reception is crappy, I'd like to know if I'm breaking the law. And it would be useful to know for road trips and such, not just for me but for others as well.
posted by wheat to Law & Government (39 answers total)
it definitely is illegal in florida--you can't wear headphones of any kind while operating a car (i'm not sure how this bears out regarding hands-free sets and whatnot).
posted by wreckingball at 1:31 PM on February 6, 2007

Illegal in Massachusetts as well.
posted by roomwithaview at 1:35 PM on February 6, 2007

I wonder if you could get arrested for wearing hearing aids while driving in those states.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 1:40 PM on February 6, 2007

Illegal in NY. Have only one of them in is legal, but once you put in a second, you're breaking the law. It has to do with being able to hear emergency vehicles.
posted by fvox13 at 1:41 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

If it's not illegal everywhere, it should be. driving with earphones in blocks out other sounds, like horns and sirens.
posted by cosmicbandito at 1:42 PM on February 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

Is it still illegal if you only have one in and one out? Then it wouldn't be any different than talking on the phone with a hands free headset. How would a cop know any different, especially if you start talking to yourself. It's still within the spirit of the law - making sure you are not deaf to what is happening outside your car.
posted by any major dude at 1:45 PM on February 6, 2007

In California it is a matter of debate as to whether the law prohibits only those headphones that cover your ears, or if ones inside are also not allowed.
posted by mzurer at 1:55 PM on February 6, 2007

Apples and oranges, spaceman_spiff. Hearing aids help you hear, but earbuds produce sounds that hamper your ability to clearly hear what's going on around you. Which seems to be the point of anti-earphone laws, since you need your senses fully available to you while driving.
posted by phatkitten at 1:55 PM on February 6, 2007

Wow. The things you learn. Never knew any of that was illegal. My regular radio blocks out horns and sirens quite well. I never hear them. What next? No cell phone use while driving? I'm kidding. :)
posted by Sassyfras at 1:59 PM on February 6, 2007

I've driven (briefly) with only one earbud in, after my radio was stolen I and desperately wanted music in my car. Unless you've managed to convert all your music to mono, you can expect this strategy to cause vague dizziness and a very unsatisfactory listening experience.
posted by vytae at 2:12 PM on February 6, 2007

Sassyfras: In most states, having your radio up so loud that it can be heard more than (n) yards away is illegal, too.

Wearing headphones while driving is just as stupid as having the radio turned waaay up while driving -- whether you think it is or not, it's distracting you and therefore making you a danger to others. It doesn't matter whether because the music is loud, or the headphones are blocking outside sounds (even if the music in them is quiet), you are less able to pay attention to the road compared to an alert, non-distracted driver.
posted by Merdryn at 2:14 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

California Vehicle Code: "No person operating any motor vehicle or bicycle shall wear any headset covering, or any earplugs in, both ears. The prohibition of this section does not apply to any of the following..." Exceptions include hearing aids.

Wearing one earbud is clearly permitted. Trying to claim that earbuds shouldn't be recognized as earplugs for the purposes of the law sounds dodgy to me, but IANAL and don't know whether legislation or precedent has defined earplugs or decided whether earbuds are earplugs.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:17 PM on February 6, 2007

It won't be healthy for your ears either, as (unless you're already always cranking the volume) you'll have to turn the volume up to compensate for the road noise.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:35 PM on February 6, 2007

It doesn't matter whether because the music is loud, or the headphones are blocking outside sounds (even if the music in them is quiet), you are less able to pay attention to the road compared to an alert, non-distracted driver.

So I take it you never listen to the radio or talk on a cell phone while driving?

I occasionally do this, but not too often, 'cause it makes me uncomfortable. I don't really see how it would be any worse than the radio, if it's quiet. (On the other hand, the radio itself can be pretty distracting). I would probably generally advise against it, though.
posted by !Jim at 3:06 PM on February 6, 2007

I know of one case personally in which a young woman wearing ear buds drove into the path of an ambulance that was responding for a cardiac arrest, causing injuries and preventing them from responding to a critical call. Whether or not it's illegal in your state to don headphones while driving, it's a very, very bad idea.
posted by itstheclamsname at 3:10 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

This goes for bicyclists as well, at least in CA. You can have one earphone/bud/whatever on but not two.
posted by kcm at 3:19 PM on February 6, 2007

As the driver of a motor vehicle it is your responsibility to drive safely and be aware of your surroundings. Wearing headphones is a good way to isolate yourself from your surroundings which I'd think is a bad thing to do when driving (or even biking).

AFAIK, it's illegal in MASS.
posted by zaphod at 3:45 PM on February 6, 2007

Are deaf people allowed to get driver's licenses?
posted by popechunk at 3:53 PM on February 6, 2007

How does these laws relate to motorcyclists who use ear plugs specifically to keep sound out?
posted by hmca at 4:13 PM on February 6, 2007

If you have a cassette deck, use a cassette deck adapter. It generally sounds great (way better than the iTrip), and it's easy as hell.
posted by knave at 4:56 PM on February 6, 2007

popechunk -- yes. The deaf can get driver's licenses after proving in a court case that they were, on the whole, much safer drivers and accustomed to driving without sound.

People with loud stereos, cell phones, and earbuds don't have a lifetime of practice, which is why it's generally regarded as a bad, dangerous idea.
posted by sixacross at 5:12 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

kcm, that's exactly what is not clear about the law. Earbuds are more like headphones than earplugs. The law needs to be clarified (either by a case being decided, or by rewriting it) and it has not yet.
posted by mzurer at 6:32 PM on February 6, 2007

I've been doing this for a while, but only for spoken word stuff like audio books, podcasts etc. If I have them playing on my stereo, they are LOUD, but I can keep the volume right down when played on headphones. I always hear emergency vehicles and other noises.

I believe it is illegal in most places, but I don't think it's pursued by the police as much as drink driving / no seatbelts etc.
posted by tomble at 6:40 PM on February 6, 2007

A couple points: earphone on a bicycle is suicide. I would never attempt that.

Like tombie, I do this almost all the time with audiobooks. It's part of my commute. I hear (and see) emergency vehicles all the time and am much better about pulling over than most anybody else on the road. If I were listening to music, I don't know how well I'd hear, though.

Finally, I got pulled over (for expired tags) a couple weeks ago while listening to a book. The cop didn't mention it at all. (Rural Oregon.)
posted by jdroth at 7:04 PM on February 6, 2007

I got hit by a moron who was listening to his mp3 player while driving behind me.

I use all my senses while driving (not so much smell...although if it smells like rubber then I know something is wrong). I find that even loud music is distracting because I can't hear cars around me. Headphone have a tendency to block out external noises so you wouldn't be able to hear emergency vehicles sirens or the honking of cars.

Legal or not, don't do it.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 7:28 PM on February 6, 2007

Note, especially to Dasein: I'm not an idiot and I'm not advocating that anyone listen to an mp3 player with earbuds while driving. I'm curious about the legality of the issue. I expected that someone would say "Don't be a jackass: get an iTrip." I had hoped to prevent that sort of guideline-breaking, snarky derail.

[Flagged as inappropriate.]
posted by wheat at 7:44 PM on February 6, 2007

I once drove from St. Louis to New Hampshire in a car with no radio. I took headphones. Every state I was in, I got a signal to stop from the first cop I saw, so I'd take 'em off till the next state (and go back to arguing with myself). I think this happened in every state but New Jersey (no cops that I saw).
posted by notsnot at 8:03 PM on February 6, 2007

No, it's not legal because you are listening in only one ear.
posted by xammerboy at 8:07 PM on February 6, 2007

In California, it's a bad thing. Cop friend says "If you have both in, you'll be getting a nice ticket."

This is a really stupid thing to do. Please, for the love of GOD, don't EVER drive around with earbuds in. I hope it stays hypothetical. :)

If the iTrip isn't working that well, why don't you just remove your car antenna? Do you occasionally listen to 'free FM' stations? If your antenna retracts, try that. I have the Monster iCarPlay and it works great when I take the antenna off of the vehicle. Never any interference at all at that point.
posted by drstein at 8:21 PM on February 6, 2007

I would think that a deaf person would be much safer than someone who was talking on a cellphone because while the deaf couldn't hear, s/he also wouldn't be distracted.

I have an iTrip (no tape deck in my car, sadness!), but I would never consider putting in an earbud. For areas where I can't seem to work the radio-signal-fu, I have a stash of CDs in my car. It's not as good as being able to listen to everything I own on random, but it's a hell of a lot better than either getting into an accident or getting pulled over.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:36 PM on February 6, 2007

Illegal in MN. Was in way N MN with no radio so had a pair on turned down so I could hear road traffic... got a ticket. I never contest tickets as I figure even if I was being careful the cop doesn't need the grief and either way I broke the law. So, learn from my mistake, or keep some extra $ handy if you get busted. But, NEVER tune the road noise out no matter what you do.
posted by edgeways at 8:44 PM on February 6, 2007

Apples and oranges, spaceman_spiff. Hearing aids help you hear, but earbuds produce sounds that hamper your ability to clearly hear what's going on around you. Which seems to be the point of anti-earphone laws, since you need your senses fully available to you while driving.

I am well aware of this, and wear hearing aids myself. But I'm one of those pedantic wise asses that insists on speculating as to how the law could have been written 'better'. Plus, I've seen abuses of this sort of thing in the past - for example, power wheelchair users being arrested, if not convicted, for driving on the sidewalk rather than the street (or driving while drunk, etc).
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:35 PM on February 6, 2007

I can't speak to the legality of this (I believe it's illegal in WI, but if I got pulled over, it would be the first thing I removed so I could hear the officer...)

The FM broadcast tools never worked for me, I think I have a couple of pirate stations between me and work, (honestly, they bleed across everything for about 5 minutes. And that would be fantastic if it was a Pump Up the Volume kind of thing, but we are talking about old school polka, and that is awesome for about three days.) That coupled with the miserable AAA battery life that the models I used were crippled by, were the death of that idea.

My old-ass car has a cassette player. I thought is was a failing, till I found my vintage cassette adapter in the garage and suddenly my Wife's skippy CD player seemed the lowest of tech compared to my MP3 player with a wire to an old school solution.

But as the poster has already said, this is not applicable.

The idea of disconnecting your antenna is a good one. One that I seriously considered, but it's a hassle unless you want rewire a switch, or have the ability to unscrew your antenna. And even that might not be a solution if you have hot spots like the polka pirates in my neighborhood.

How about hitting a dollar store/ Target discount bin and seeing if you can find some cheap MP3 speakers (I'm thinking of the things that they have sold as Turn-your-MP3-player-into-a-jukebox kind of thing). I know they ain't selling well around here and are findable for cheap. If you can lay your hands on something like that, you could pull out the speakers, stick them in a bag and lay them over your headrest. Instant headset stereo system, sort of like what the high end luxury cars have, only vastly more ghetto and probably much more legal than using earbuds.
posted by quin at 10:46 PM on February 6, 2007

Illegal in GA, if I remember correctly.
posted by somanyamys at 7:14 AM on February 7, 2007

I like quin's idea. I keep a pair of lousy self-powered speakers in my car in case my FM transmitter batteries die.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:24 AM on February 7, 2007

I appreciate all of the responses, so I wanted to follow up. I've been pretty happy with the iTrip (and the RoadTrip I have in the other car). I don't have a tape deck in either vehicle, so that's not an option. I do what grapefruitmoon suggests: I use the iTrip so long as it works and I switch to a small stash of CD or the radio if reception starts to suck.

I'm lucky that, even though the FM band is crowded here, I can listen to my iTrip on my work commute without any trouble. And that's where it gets used the most. For road trips, I might try removing the antenna. Since I got the iTrip, the only radio station I can stand is NPR.

For the record, though I enjoy loud music, I enjoy living more. So I keep my radio (and/or iPod+iTrip) down low enough so I'm aware of the traffic. I often crack the window just so I can hear more of the traffic. I even feel a little odd wearing earbuds when I'm walking the dog, for fear that tuning out other sounds would make me less quick to respond to them (like, you know, another dog running up on us. Which, as any dog owner knows, happens once in a while).

I am, though, getting a little sick of FM solutions. So I may just upgrade my car stereo to one with an 1/8" in put on the front. I'd have done it already, but it's an old car (1992 Prelude) and I figure I'll have to upgrade it soon anyway. A direct 1/8" connection, or some cash set aside for a stereo upgrade, is going to be a requirement on the next car I buy.
posted by wheat at 7:57 AM on February 7, 2007

I'm sick of the law assuming that any headphones I wear block out all outside sound. I don't like not hearing ambient noise, and make my headphone and volume choices accordingly.

It is against the law for bicyclists and motorists in CA to have both 'sides' on. One thing I do not know is how far speakers have to be from my ears to be considered headphones.

In my opinion, being unable to hear what's going on (except for the non-recently deaf) should be the crime. Much like some places have a "driving while impaired" (includes impairement due to lack of sleep) as opposed to a "driving while intoxicated" (alcohol).

I think I gave a mostly blue post on a green page. Sorry.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:09 AM on February 7, 2007

Fvox13, do you have a citation for that?
posted by chickletworks at 10:52 AM on February 7, 2007

Just came across this while looking for something else - in Virginia it looks like they do recognize a difference between one and two ears - the law specifies both.

It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle, bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, or moped on the highways in the Commonwealth while using earphones on or in both ears. [emphasis mine]

posted by phearlez at 7:28 AM on February 15, 2007

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