This question has come up a lot in my conversations with fellow riders. Some riders I know will always put their earbuds in and crank up the tunes before putting their helmet on. Some don’t listen to music at all.
But, is it safe to ride a motorcycle while listening to music? It is safer to ride without the distraction of music. In California, and in many other states, it is illegal to drive or ride a bicycle with headphones in BOTH ears, however it is legal to use a headphone, or ear bud, in one ear. This includes motorcycles.
Riding a motorcycle is noisy. You have to deal with wind noise and the noise from your engine especially if you have loud pipes. Adding music, or any other kind of audible entertainment, is only going to add to the cacophony.
How Music Creates a Distraction
There have been numerous studies on whether or not listening to music impairs your ability to concentrate, perform a task at work, or study for an exam. There have also been some studies on your ability to drive a car safely while listening to music. Here are a few ways that music can be unsafe.
The Music is Too Loud and Aggressive
Several studies have come to the conclusion that when you listen to extremely loud music (above 95 decibels) your reaction time is slower. Also, aggressive music, such as punk or heavy metal, can cause you to be more tense preventing you from relaxing. Tension on the motorcycle can be a major problem especially if you’re riding twisty, technical roads.
You’re Listening to Music you Like
This one may sound odd, but when you’re listening to music that you really like, you are more likely to make mistakes, miss a turn, forget to signal, and you may even drive more aggressively. You are so in-tune with the music that you are more likely to tune out the things going on around you.
The Music Tempo is Too Fast or Too Slow
If the music you’re listening to have a fast beat, your brain, for some reason, wants to match that tempo. People have been known to drive faster without realizing it when they listen to music with a fast tempo. On the opposite end of that is music that is too slow. This kind of music is too relaxing and a driver will have the tendency to zone out and reaction time is slowed. But, there is a sweet spot. Music with a tempo of between 60 and 80 beats per minute keeps drivers from being too aggressive or too relaxed. How fast is 60 to 80 bpm? It’s about as fast as your average heart beat.
But, it’s not all bad news. There are times when music can help make you a better rider.
Avoiding Boredom with Music
Let’s say you’re on a nice long motorcycle trip and you have a lot of miles to cover on any particular day. Let’s add to that a long, straight slab of highway that you have to ride. It’s gonna get boring and you’re probably gonna space out. This is a good time to listen to music or your favorite podcast.
Choose music that is in that sweet spot of being not too fast, not too slow, not too loud and not too aggressive. Choose something that makes you feel good, that you can sing along to, but not so much that you are tempted to close your eyes and bust out an air guitar solo.
There are times when music can actually enhance your concentration. People who do repetitive task, one that they know inside and out, or have done a million times, find that music can actually help them concentrate and perform at a higher level. So, if you are an experience rider doing the repetitive task of riding down a straight highway, the right kind of music may actually help you concentrate on the road and your surroundings.
So, as riders, should we avoid listening to music completely? What are some safe ways to listen to music when you’re riding a motorcycle? We’ve already learned that listening to moderate music at a moderate tempo and volume is a safe thing to do. That’s easy to do in a car. But, on a motorcycle there are more challenges that should be addressed.
External Speakers vs. Headphones
There are basically only two ways to listen to music on your motorcycle; external speakers, or headphones. Or, helmet speakers. Ok, that’s three ways.
A lot of bigger bikes, cruisers and touring models alike, come with a stereo system. This is probably the most effective and convenient way to get your music on. Bikes with built in stereos often come with controls that are easy and safe for the rider to operate while moving. There are a number of after market speaker systems that can be installed on nearly any motorcycle, some with bluetooth capabilities.
The speakers you choose will have to be loud enough to be heard over wind noise and noise from loud pipes. Generally, if the speakers are aligned properly, and the tonality and volume of the music is adjusted properly, hearing the music while riding is not usually a problem. Keep in mind that everyone around you can also hear your music, and at a stop light, everyone…I mean everyone, will know you’re there. Honestly riders who have external speakers really don’t care what other people think, but it is definitely a personal choice.
The other option is to keep your music to yourself, inside your helmet. Personally, I prefer this method. A lot of riders will use a standard pair of wired earbuds and try to gingerly slide their helmet on without popping one out (that’s so annoying). Then there’s the trick of stringing the wires down your jacket and into the pocket that holds your phone or iPod Shuffle. Then, you need to start your playlist, sometimes before you can put on your gloves.
This takes us to one more reason why listening to music while riding a motorcycle is dangerous. Our constant desire to fiddle with our gadgets. Trying to adjust the volume, skip a song, or change a playlist can be extremely distracting. If you listen to music, this is just going to take some self control. If you don’t like the song that’s playing, don’t worry, it will be over in 3 1/2 minutes.
Back to the earbuds. Often you will have to turn up the volume pretty high to hear your music over the wind noise. This adds more noise to the mix and can cause more damage to your hearing over time. An alternative is to use noise cancelling earbuds. These will seal out most external noises, just like a pair of foam earplugs, allowing you to hear your music better.
However, consider this. When you ride with earplugs, the wind and engine noise is greatly reduced, but you are still able to hear some things around you, such as a siren or horn. Add music to that mix and it’s going to impair your ability to hear those important warnings.
Ok, let’s explore one more option. I’ve ridden many times while listening to music through my headset. I have an older Cardo System with two flat speakers that velcro to the inside of my helmet. But, here’s what I don’t like about my current system. The speakers can be very tinny and at freeway speeds, I can never hear the music of the wind noise no matter how high I turn up the volume. Also, I miss all the good bass sounds and I don’t get a good, full music experience. Granted, helmet speakers are getting better, and it’s probably time for me to upgrade.
This leads us to one more possible way to safely listen to music while riding a motorcycle.
Noise Cancelling Earplugs
The term “noise cancelling” is a bit of a misnomer, as they don’t actually cancel out all sound. Also known as acoustic earplugs , they are fitted with an attenuation filter which will cancel out any sound louder than around 75db while allowing a normal range of sounds to get through. These are common for people who work with loud machinery, musicians or people at shooting ranges where it’s important to be able to hear, but still have the protection from loud noises.
A lot of riders have expressed that these type of earplugs work well on a motorcycle in combination with helmet speakers. They block the damaging wind noise, but allow you to hear your surroundings including the music you’re playing. Check these out on Amazon.
When to Play Music and When to Turn it Off
Now that we know how music can distract us, and different ways we can listen to music, now it’s time to decide when to listen and when to turn off the music.
Use music to enhance your concentration when you’re feeling bored, or have a long stretch of highway to get through. Use it to keep yourself alert in moderate traffic. But, when it comes time to concentrate on the road and your surroundings, like in heavy traffic, turn off the music. If you’re riding on a technical, twisty, curvy fun canyon road, give the music a break.
Above all, be aware of how music affects you personally and don’t take unnecessary risks just to hear that one song.