Wearing earbuds while driving is not illegal (in many states). However, this comes with a caveat. In certain states, it is indeed illegal to use earbuds unless they are used in improving the hearing of the driver or are being used as a navigational aid. Some states disallow them completely while in some states it is allowed to have an earphone in one ear for communication/navigation. For a full list of laws by state, checkout this article: List of earphone laws by US States
Regardless of the law, it is definitely not recommended to use earbuds while driving and there are multiple safety agencies which strongly recommend that you do not wear earbuds or earbuds while you drive. These recommendations are from regulators in the US, UK, Australia, France and other countries. So you can be assured that these guidelines are very universal. It has also been noted that using headphones can affect your driving by causing distraction and loss of concentration. For more details, check out our article on how using headphones affects your driving
The Law on use of earbuds while driving
Driving laws in the USA are made on a state by state basis. You can check out the website for the American Automobile Association website to get the latest updated list of the laws on usage of earbuds while driving. You can check the AAA list of laws by state here . The New York Times did an article on the legality of driving with headphones in New York state
In the United Kingdom, it is not specifically illegal to drive while wearing headphones. However, if it is believed that the driver is distracted or not fully in control of their vehicle, the driver can be stopped and penalized by the police.
Similar to the United Kingdom, it is not explicitly illegal to use earbuds while driving. However, if the driver is believed to be distracted while driving, they can be stopped and penalized. The official guidelines for this can be found here
France has banned the usage of earbuds while driving for motorists and cyclists. While France is known for their knee jerk reactions to driving laws, this move has been widely lauded and has been in effect for 3 years now. If drivers are caught flouting this rule, they may face a fine of up to 135 Euros and be docked 3 points from their drivers license. This penalty is equivalent to what they would face in case of being caught without wearing a seatbelt. Here is a recent news article about this law
In Canada, using earbuds in both ears while driving can lead to serious consequences. Drivers will face a fine of $368 and will also get a demerit of 4 points on their driving license. Driving with only one earbud however will not attract any action from the police.
Main uses of earbuds while driving
You might have seen many of your Uber and Lyft drivers using earbuds while driving. While we have seen many of them using their earbuds while driving for answering calls, it is quite rare to see someone using earbuds in their car for the purpose of listening to music.
The main uses of earbuds while driving are
- Listening to navigation commands
- Communicating with central base operation
- Improving hearing ability
- Listening to music/entertainment
With the rise of GPS and mobile based navigation, everyone has access to high quality driving maps and navigation on their mobile device. In order to not disturb other passengers in the vehicle, many drivers use earbuds while driving to listen to automated navigation instructions. These are allowed in many states and will not land you in trouble. Whenever possible, we recommend that you use the car audio system or if unavoidable, use the earphone in only one ear
Communicating with central base operation
Many commercial vehicle operators need to frequently communicate with their home base operation team to get instructions. This is again allowed in many states. Using earbuds connected to their mobile phone while driving is sometimes the only way to do this. It would be best to use the vehicles audio system for this or if necessary one earbud with the other free to receive traffic audio signals.
Improving hearing ability
For those hard of hearing, hearing aids collect ambient sound and amplify it via an earphone into the users ear. This is exempt in many states.
Listening to music/entertainment
Listening to music/radio/audiobooks is a major use of car audio systems and earbuds while driving. This is by far the most dangerous use of earbuds while driving. This is due to two reasons. First is that this distracts the driver with part of their attention focused on comprehension of the sound. The other reason is the blocking of external sound stimuli. External sounds act as an important cue for drivers. Using earbuds while driving for consuming entertainment programming can block a significant amount of traffic cues leading to possibly dangerous situations.
It is recommended for drivers to not use earbuds while driving for entertainment purposes.
Research on use of earbuds while driving
There has been research done on driving with earphones. The methodology employed was to have drivers use a driving simulator. Half the drivers used earphones first and half used car audio systems first. They then completed the test using the other audio system. There were a series of tasks needed to be completed and reaction times as well as errors were measured.
It was found that drivers take significantly longer to change gears while wearing earphones. They also tend to make more steering errors and take longer to respond to hazards, these results however were not statistically significant. For more details check out this link
It was also found that drivers have lesser accurate judgments of speed when using earphones. This can lead to both slower response times and faster speeds while driving.
A difference in reaction time of 0.3 seconds while driving at 45 miles an hour can lead to a difference in 20 feet of distance traveled. This can be critical in an emergency situation. Read on to find out the FAQs for usage of earphones while driving
FAQs – Usage of earphones while driving
Can I use the car audio system instead?
Even if it is legal to use earbuds in your state, check if you can use your car audio system instead. Using a car audio system lets in a greater amount of outside noise. This might not be best in terms of enjoying your music but will certainly help you in being a safer driver. An apt situation might be hearing ambulance and police sirens from a distance which can be much more difficult while using earbuds
Is the volume too high on my earbuds?
If you do use earbuds while driving, make sure that the volume is not turned up too high. Your hearing will thank you and you will be a more alert and aware driver.
Can you do with using only one earbud?
Using one earbud is vastly safer as compared to using earbuds in both ears. You will have the best of both worlds by doing so.
Will I keep fiddling with my phone while driving?
We know its tough to not skip a song that you are not in a mood to listen to. However, fiddling with your phone and music apps while driving can be very dangerous. So select a good play list and settle in for the ride.
Two Wheelers and earbuds do not mix
We strongly discourage you from using earbuds if you are riding a bike or a motorcycle. You need all your senses when you are riding one and earbuds can be very dangerous.