Earbud Citation: Is it necessary?

On my way to school this morning I passed Officer Ralph Nuno (bicycle campus police officer) stopping folks on bicycle at the north side of the Outdoor Adventures traffic circle. He was primarily looking for people who were listening to there mp3 players while riding their bicycle. I found this a bit outrageous, so I stopped to talk with him about what was going on. It turns out that he is the only bicycle cop on campus and is fairly new. He was very nice and gave me lots of great information on the situation.

He said that it was illegal to operate a vehicle on roadways with more than one earbud in, according to the California vehicle code. I have several issues with this:

  1. That bicyclists, especially on the car-free campus, are treated like motor vehicle drivers. We are in a car-free zone going at human speeds more akin to running and walking. I believe that the laws about bicycles should reflect this. He wasn’t citing walkers or runners for having more than one earbud even though they have to interact with the occasional car and/or bus. Bicyclists deserve to be treated different than motor vehicle drivers. Bicycles are much slower and not as nearly dangerous. Officer Nuno was enforcing the law to the letter, but the problem is the law.
  2. If the city and campus actually want to promote bicycling then we have to give bicyclists more convenience and privilege. Policy in America has long treated the bicycle the same as a motor vehicle. This creates an unfavourable environment for the use of bicycles. Until we change this fundamental idea, we will not see increases in bicycling. We have no problem giving cars more privilege than lets say…ATV drivers (even though there are lots of ATVs), or more privilege for buses than cars. There is nothing wrong with giving different transportation modes more convenience and privilege for the sake of a safer, an environmentally friendly society, but unfortunately automobiles are the dominant mode in America.
  3. Taking away your ability to hear on a bicycle will probably only cause harm to yourself. To clarify, I consider getting hit by a car while riding a bicycle as harmful but crashing into another bicyclist at normal bicycling speeds not really that harmful. Thus, I believe it shouldn’t be a priority that officers are told to go out and look for specific violations in a sting operation for minor infractions. Enforcing laws like these as Officer Nuno was doing today is only a discouragement for bicyclists.
  4. The earbud ticket costs over 100 dollars. This is outrageous. What at great way to discourage bicycling! Negative enforcement for these silly infractions are not helping to get more bicyclists on the road.

Not to be all negative, Officer Nuno did tell me about a couple of good things that the Campus Police are doing:

  1. The PD thinks the citation fee is way to high. They are working to lower the costs of bicycle infractions such as running stop signs and earbud use. I think this is good except that they will probably feel better about giving more tickets than just mostly warnings as they do now.
  2. The PD has teamed up with the Silo to give $7 coupons to people that are behaving well and following laws on their bicycles. He says the Silo loves it and they plan on continuing. Encouragement is an important key to get more folks on bicycles.

I would love to see the negative reinforcement for these minor infractions of the vehicle code be stopped, especially for bicyclists, and much more of the positive reinforcement and education increased.

– Jason Moore, UC Davis Graduate Student and member of the Davis Bike Collective

11 Responses to “Earbud Citation: Is it necessary?”


  • I think it would be of particular interest to have someone with the CA Bicycle Coalition or a member of the Bike Advisory Commission for the whole state weigh in on this. Pro-bike people have a long wish list. But it really helps to find out from the front lines in terms of legislative action what they have attempted in recent years, and what is the prognosis for success on this or any other items on our long wish list.

    It’s interesting to read about how Idaho managed to enact the “rolling stop” law for bikes, and why similar efforts have been unsuccessful in Oregon and elsewhere.

    My impression is that here in CA, changes to the vehicle code to better codify cyclists’ legitimate rights to space on the roads free of inconsiderate/aggressive drivers, and stiffening the requirements of motorists to slow down and make room for cyclists are a more urgent priority for legislative reform, and more doable at this time, versus relaxing the rules/penalties against cyclists.

  • I was always hesitant to use earbuds when mixing with cars, but then tried it. Did it for a long time as I went thru a phase of listening to podcasts. What I found was that I really had to crank it up to hear the podcast because cars were *so* loud. I didn’t realize how loud they actually were until I did this. When I go over the freeway, I have to pause the player or I’ll miss that part of the podcast. It’s really just about impossible to miss hearing a car with earbuds–and I have somewhat marginal hearing.

    I think the law reflects the perspective of no perspective. I can hear cars better with my earbuds on at full volume than I can inside a car.

  • Wow Mike, I never thought of it from that angle. Great perspective.

    As I left my house today (close to 8th and pole line) I heard the roar of the 1-80 traffic drowning out any natural sounds. The sun was shining and looking to be a beautiful day except that the noise pollution for the interstate pulled my wandering mind back to reality. Cars are unbelievably loud, and we as a society seem to accept it.

  • If any of you have ever gone hiking off I-80, you have to hike up and well over the first ridge above the freeway before you stop hearing freeway traffic. I’m sure someone somewhere has developed a statistic as to what percentage of people in the US live within hearing of freeway noise that can be distinguished from local traffic noise. I’m sure it’s a majority.

  • Well, as usual, what I have to say seems of little interest to the other participants in the discussion. ;-P :-o

    Maybe the law makes more sense for headphones that block the sound, not earbuds.

    • Russell,

      I think that these small things do matter, even though we have bigger fish to fry at the state and federal level. We don’t have to change the earbud law, but we could convince the UCDPD chief to tell his officers not to do stings for earbuds and stop sign violations. He could even tell the officers to only give warnings for these things on campus if they happen to see them. No law changing needed in the vehicle code, but our example of being lenient could be a nice example for the law changing lobbyists to show in the future when they are able to get around to these little fish.

  • I feel completely comfortable and safe wearing earbuds while bicycling for two reasons.

    First, they usually still let a certain amount of noise from the environment through, though this probably wouldn’t so much be the case if I cranked them up (I don’t).

    Second, bicycling is much more of a visual than auditory experience. Imagine: you could probably cycle better deaf than blind. I use my eyes and look around to get information, rather than listening for it. Anyway, you’ll never hear that Prius coming up behind you.

  • Isn’t this all a tad silly? I’m all in favor of encouraging people to cycle, and I agree that reducing fines for cyclists relative to those for motorists is a good step. However, is cycling with two earbuds in versus one so important that you would chose to walk or drive over riding a bike? If earbuds are such a crucial issue, I’d hate to see what requiring a helmet on minors or a headlight and a functioning brake would do to cycling as a useful form of transportation.

    Also, I leave my left ear bud out not so that I can hear cars, but so that I can hear other cyclists* overtaking me. Collisions between bikes at even walking speeds can taco wheels and bend frames, resulting in a nasty repair bill. Repair bills for people are also pretty high, and sadly there isn’t a medical coop to mitigate those costs.

    *And Prii (Priuses? Priores?)when they are in their EV sneak attack mode.

    • It is already more convenient to take a car than a bicycle in most cases around town. Car drivers have better parking, better and more roads, laws that are more suitable, less stops, etc. I believe that we need to stop creating inconveniences for bicyclists (unless safety is a real concern) and start making driving less convenient. I don’t see any real safety reason to not allow bicyclists to use mp3 players with two earbuds on campus. And especially no reason to have a sting to enforce it. Let’s make bicycling the obvious mode choice by getting rid of some of these useless laws.

  • Hi y’all,

    I should be homeworking, so this will be short.

    I feel like the minority here in thinking that it is not actually safe for people to be biking with two ear buds in. There have been too many times when I’ve said “on your left” or some such thing to a bicyclist, only to discover that they weren’t responding because they were listening to their IPod. This lack of response to auditory signals is enough to convince me that this law is in place for a reason. Since I see it as a safety issue, I see the idea of addressing the safety issue as something that would benefit cyclists, since if bicycling is a safer experience, it will be more pleasant and there will be fewer horror stories. I agree with Jason that warnings (translation: edumacation) would be at least as effective as large fines.

  • Here’s what I wrote about this misguided law. Please not that it is not campus-centric, just bicycle centric. You can get a ticket off campus just as easily as on.

    Vehicle Code section 27400. A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears.
    Headphone rant to follow: What is it with a law against earphones while riding? I can legally ride without a helmet, so it isn’t MY safety being protected, is it? I can legally ride if I’m deaf. I can wear ear muffs, or a full-face helmet that covers my ears. So it can’t be about what I can hear around me. There is no law requiring a rear-view mirror on bicycles so this must not be about something sneaking up behind me. Inexperienced children can legally ride on public streets. People with no bike-handling skills can ride on public streets. Bikes in poor mechanical condition can be ridden legally on public streets – so there doesn’t seem to be much interest in protecting OTHERS from bike riders. So why is it that somebody on a mechanically sound bike, sporting a helmet and a rearview mirror, who knows how to handle a bicycle and ride safely cannot legally ride with earphones?

    I have heard some say that if a rider needs music to enjoy bicycling that he should take up another sport. Huh? That’s like a fixie rider telling a geared rider that he’s in the wrong sport if he needs a deraileur to enjoy his ride. We all enjoy riding in different ways and for different reasons. When I’m riding long distances alone, I like to listen to my favorite music. In stereo. And while I can roll the windows up in my car and crank the tunes, I can’t wear earphones and listen to music on my bike where I’m SIGNIFICANTLY more aware of my surroundings and SIGNIFICANTLY less likely to cause anybody else harm if I end up missing something around me because of compromised hearing.

    Are Ipod ear buds “ear plugs?” They don’t plug anything, and when the music is off, I can hear around them just fine. When I’m riding in excess of 20 mph, the wind rushing by my ears is almost deafening, and certainly prevents normal hearing. But again, there’s no law that says my ears have to be able to hear anything – just that I cannot cover them with a headset. There are cases of bicyclists being hit from the rear by an automobile, and because the bicyclist was wearing a headset, the bicyclist was assigned some of the blame for the collision. Freaking amazing. If anybody comes across me in a ditch with my Ipod earbuds in, please remove them and toss ‘em as far as you can… then call 911.

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