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Listening to music on headphones slows cyclists’ and drivers’ reaction times by 4 seconds, says Ford

Research forms part of motor giant’s Share The Road campaign – which last year brought us the ‘Emoji jacket’

The latest news from Ford Europe’s Share The Road initiative – you know, the one that gave us the ‘Emoji jacket’ – is that listening to music on headphones while driving or cycling can make reaction times to hazards four seconds slower, on average.

> "I look forward to being murdered with one of these": Cyclists condemn "distracting" Mercedes in-car technology

That’s enough time to cycle around 30 yards if you’re going at a speed of 15 miles an hour … and of course double that distance for a motorist nudging the speed limit on a 30mph road.

The company put 2,000 road users from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – including scooter riders and pedestrians, besides cyclists and motorists – “into an immersive virtual street and measured their reaction times in potentially hazardous situations.”

The experiment was based on a smartphone app called Share The Road: Safe And Sound – one that Ford has now made available to anyone curious enough to try it out for themselves – which gave “a specially developed ‘8D’ spatial sound experience.”

According to Ford, 58 per cent of participants said afterwards that they would not listen to music again on the move in the future having realised how much it slowed their reactions, which were found on average to be 4.2 seconds slower with music playing than when it was not.

Dr Maria Chait, Professor of auditory cognitive neuroscience at University College London, said: “Sound plays a vital role in our ability to understand our environment – we very often hear important events happening around us before we see them.

“While headphones can be beneficial to us in many circumstances, on the road they can block out important sound cues, meaning we might not be able to perceive nearby vehicles or road users, potentially putting them – and us – in danger.”

Ford Europe’s senior Manager of brand communications and content development, Emmanuel Lubrani, added: “With this research we are highlighting an important road safety issue that often goes under the radar.

“Accessible to anybody with a smartphone, we hope that our Share The Road: Safe and Sound experience will raise awareness of the reality of wearing headphones while on the move.”

In 2018, a study conducted in the Netherlands concluded that cyclists who listen to music through headphones or talk on their mobile phones while riding their bikes may be putting themselves at risk.

> Dutch study: Using headphones "Negatively affects perception of sounds crucial for safe cycling"

The authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention also suggested that cyclists listening to music or talking on their phone in countries with less cycling infrastructure than the Dutch enjoy might be more at risk.

Ford’s Share The Road campaign aims to “foster greater harmony and understanding between road users.”

It received widespread criticism from cyclists when it was unveiled in 2018, when the UK launch was hosted by the road safety charity Brake, with Jeremy Vine doing the duties as presenter.

> Ford’s ‘Share the Road’ campaign leaves cyclists unimpressed

Guardian journalist Peter Walker said at the time that “Any campaign which says "sharing" is the solution is fatally flawed from the start. Sure, a bit more mutual understanding and a bit less aggression would be great. But just asking everyone to be nice won't keep anyone safer.”

London Cycling Campaign’s infrastructure campaigner Simon Munk noted at the time that “attempting to chastise both drivers and cyclists in panels creates false equivalence of responsibility.”

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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29 comments

Avatar
hawkinspeter | 2 years ago
4 likes

I used to use headphones on my journey back from the train station (as I'd been using them on the train) but there's just no way that my reactions were 4 seconds slower. If that were the case, I'd have ridden into pedestrians and been run over multiple times crossing roads. In the end, I found it less relaxing using headphones whilst cycling as you do have to focus on using your eyes more.

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David9694 | 2 years ago
3 likes

I've always preached that cycling with headphones is A Bad Thing. Now Ford have reachec the same conclusion, I will now have to start defending them.  As has been said, I look forward to Ford and others reducing the onboard distractions in their products. 

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Sriracha | 2 years ago
7 likes

Seems like a flawed study, since it makes no attempt to distinguish between distraction caused by the music and masking of environmental sounds. Either could be happening, they just seem to be assuming it's a masking effect.

Yet car drivers are pretty insulated from environmental sounds in any case, upmarket manufacturers make a point about the sound insulation of their vehicle cabins. I doubt having the radio off makes the cabin any less isolated acoustically.

So it would have been useful to learn about the separate effects of distraction and of masking, and which effect is at issue with car drivers.

I certainly find it helpful to mute the car radio when manoeuvering or reversing. It has nothing to do with the radio masking other sounds, and everything to do with it distracting me.

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Steve K | 2 years ago
3 likes

Aren't cars (increasingly) pretty much sound proofed boxes?

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swldxer | 2 years ago
4 likes

What a load of rubbish - deaf people use their eyes more as they have to whilst moving around hazards, not less. It's just another excuse to pass the blame towards cyclists in car vs bikes collisions, like was the victim wearing a yellow jacket and a plastic hat.

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Mungecrundle replied to swldxer | 2 years ago
4 likes

And no cyclist, ever, anywhere has griped about zombie pedestrians isolated from the world around them by a huge set of cans?

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Awavey replied to Mungecrundle | 2 years ago
5 likes

no, cyclists complain when zombie pedestrians isolated from the world step off the pavement without looking, putting them in to a direct collision path, pedestrians just need to use their eyes, I certainly couldnt give a xxxx what they are listening to.

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Mungecrundle replied to Awavey | 2 years ago
1 like

Agreed. If only there were some way of giving them some sort of effective audible warning of the cyclist's presence from a reasonable distance.

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Smiffi replied to swldxer | 2 years ago
2 likes

So one the one hand a peer-reviewed scientific study, and on the other someone who's unlikely to have read the study saying "Rubish!" Let me consider who to believe.

Humans have five senses, sight and hearing are the two which are predominantly useful when travelling outdoors (assuming you can't smell or taste an approaching articulated truck due to your highly honed senses which you've cultivated through years of high-volume ear-bud usage and wearing of category 4 sunglasses in overcast conditions), it stands to reason that compromising one of these must cause a deterioration in awareness.  Whether this deterioration is measurable or significant is another matter, but it will be present in the same way that daydreaming, talking, or playing air-guitar will compromise your ability to undertake any task at hand (including driving and cycling).

There was an interesting experiment I saw years ago with pedestrians in a shopping centre being interviewed.  They were asked to count backwards from 100 in steps of seven whilst walking and almost invariably they stopped walking as they were unable do mental arithmetic, talk, and walk at the same time.  

Anything which distracts you in a dangerous situation should be avoided where possible, it's basic health and safety practice.  Unfortunately people's comforts and rights usurp common sense outside of the work environment. 

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Steve K replied to Smiffi | 2 years ago
2 likes
Smiffi wrote:

So one the one hand a peer-reviewed scientific study, and on the other someone who's unlikely to have read the study saying "Rubish!" Let me consider who to believe.

Humans have five senses, sight and hearing are the two which are predominantly useful when travelling outdoors (assuming you can't smell or taste an approaching articulated truck due to your highly honed senses which you've cultivated through years of high-volume ear-bud usage and wearing of category 4 sunglasses in overcast conditions), it stands to reason that compromising one of these must cause a deterioration in awareness.  Whether this deterioration is measurable or significant is another matter, but it will be present in the same way that daydreaming, talking, or playing air-guitar will compromise your ability to undertake any task at hand (including driving and cycling).

There was an interesting experiment I saw years ago with pedestrians in a shopping centre being interviewed.  They were asked to count backwards from 100 in steps of seven whilst walking and almost invariably they stopped walking as they were unable do mental arithmetic, talk, and walk at the same time.  

Anything which distracts you in a dangerous situation should be avoided where possible, it's basic health and safety practice.  Unfortunately people's comforts and rights usurp common sense outside of the work environment. 

You seem to be arguing two different points. One about impairing one of the senses and the other about distractions. I suspect the second may be more important (compare with the use of mobile phones - handheld are banned, because it is assumed it's the use of a hand that's the problem, but the evidence is that hands free are just as bad, because concentrating on something else is the real problem).

I'm also not clear from the article that the Ford study is peer reviewed (though I assume the Dutch one from 2018 was).

Anyway, I'm going to stick with my open ear headphones for now.

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Smiffi replied to Steve K | 2 years ago
0 likes
Steve K wrote:
Smiffi wrote:

You seem to be arguing two different points. One about impairing one of the senses and the other about distractions. I suspect the second may be more important

You're right, I'd not even considered distinguishing between being distracted (i.e. not responding to the hazard) and not being able to hear a hazard.  I guess the outcome could be similar, but they are different.

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cgfw201 | 2 years ago
2 likes

I assume this is based on 2 headphones rather than one? I've listened to music/podcasts/audiobooks/radio in my left ear for 99% of my solo rides over the last 12 years and never had any issue. Can hear all traffic and other useful road noise in the right ear, entertainment in the left.

Is this the same ford who just unveiled an in car entertainment thing which looks like a bloody cinema?

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sean1 | 2 years ago
6 likes

Whilst Ford distracts everyone by blaming cyclists for "safety" concerns....

They patent a system to put adverts onto a vehicles dashboard infotainment system.....

https://gizmodo.com/get-ready-for-in-car-ads-1846888390

 

 

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Jenova20 replied to sean1 | 2 years ago
0 likes
sean1 wrote:

<p>Whilst Ford distracts everyone by blaming cyclists for "safety" concerns....</p>

<p>They patent a system to put adverts onto a vehicles dashboard infotainment system.....</p>

<p>https://gizmodo.com/get-ready-for-in-car-ads-1846888390</p>

<p>&nbsp;</p>

<p>&nbsp;</p>

Ford - The EA of the automotive industry.

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0-0 | 2 years ago
5 likes

How about fitting all cars with a sensor, that prevents the driver from overtaking anything that's closer than 1.5 metres on the left* of the car, when travelling more than 10 mph?
If you do pass closer than 1.5 metres, you get an electric shock.

* or right, if you drive on the wrong side of the road i.e the colonies 😉

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sean1 | 2 years ago
6 likes

Just more Ford "share the road" BS.

The study discovered that it could take headphone wearers upto 4 seconds longer to pick up an external sound compared to without headphones.  No doubt similar differences could be made between windy and non-windy days, and cycling in busy traffic versus on a quiet lane.

This does not correlate to any reduction in safety for the cyclist as by enlarge cyclists rely on visual clues to avoid hazards.

And as the Dutch study found out, headphone wearing did not lead to more risk.

"However, taking into account the influence of confounding variables, no relationship was found between the frequency of listening to music or talking on the phone and the frequency of incidents...."

Again just the motor industry attempting to lump "safety" onto vulnerable road users rather than motor vehicles.

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AlsoSomniloquism replied to sean1 | 2 years ago
2 likes

I tried the app. Essentially they give the scenario, ask you to pick out the certain type of vehicle, run the scnenario with "music playing" and then run one without (vehicle comes from a different direction). First of all they should be randomising the music playing instead of it being first all the time (at least in my scenarios that was the case). I have familiarity of the roads and layout and key, what I can do with the app as initially I didn't know I could look all around me. They also seemed to hide the vehicles you are looking out for when the "music is playing". The earliest you can see the ambulance in scenario one is 4 seconds in. Second Scenario it is right behind you if you turn around. And they repeat that down the line. So not only harder to hear but just generally harder to see so sound is not the only issue within the "study". 

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Chris Hayes | 2 years ago
3 likes

I suspect that listening to music on headphones whilst cycling may slow your reaction time permanently.....

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Awavey | 2 years ago
5 likes

What do they define as music also ? Because this past month or so the wind has been so strong, riding at certain angles around its main source direction, the white noise it creates in my ears completely blocks out all other sound input, I cant hear anything except wind, and maybe it's as I get older & my hearing isnt that good to begin with,but I'm spending alot more time shoulder checking for phantom vehicles right behind me when there isnt anything there.

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Hirsute replied to Awavey | 2 years ago
2 likes

High winds and helmets do not help hearing. I have a small mirror now to check.

Also useful for anticipating a close pass.

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Sriracha | 2 years ago
2 likes

Since forever I have been in the habit of killing the radio whilst reversing in the car - I just find that makes it easier to focus on the manoeuvre. Then I discovered some cars automatically mute the radio when you engage reverse - so obviously it's not just me. Equally obviously, it is known in automotive design circles that the radio impairs the driver.

That said, when driving miles to a holiday destination, the CD player kept the kids quiet, which definitely improved my focus on the road.

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Flâneur replied to Sriracha | 2 years ago
0 likes

A lot of cars mute or dial down the radio so you can hear the parking sensors - maybe some do it even if they're an option and not fitted. I doubt very much it's a safety feature for those outside the cage as manufacturers generally DGAF

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Sriracha replied to Flâneur | 2 years ago
0 likes

Why would they bother muting the radio to help you hear non-existant parking sensors? My own experience is that it is easier to concentrate when the radio is off, and I just found myself reaching automatically for the off button when reversing. It had nothing to do do with making it easier to hear other sounds, it just makes it easier to focus on the manoeuvre. So it made perfect sense to me when I discovered car manufacturers doing the same.

This study seems to be about headphones masking other sounds, rather than what I experienced which was just the distraction caused by the noise of the radio.

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AlsoSomniloquism | 2 years ago
9 likes

So does that mean Ford will remove all media playing devices from their cars now? Or is it only wearing headphones in the car that is the problem? Is there a difference if listening to podcasts which is what I normally do with my aeropex? Do they count as earphones?

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Sriracha replied to AlsoSomniloquism | 2 years ago
0 likes

I believe using headphones whilst driving (and cycling) is illegal in France. This includes mobile handsfree kits relying on an earbud.

It would be interesting to know whether it is the more immersive experience which counts against headphones. But then even over speakers, some people turn the volume up so high that it comes to the same thing.

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HoarseMann replied to AlsoSomniloquism | 2 years ago
3 likes
AlsoSomniloquism wrote:

So does that mean Ford will remove all media playing devices from their cars now?

I expect so. I guess they'll be recalling older models to have in-car entertainment systems removed too?!

What we need to know is how long they've known about this? If they've been selling cars that they know to be dangerous, then I'm sure there's some compensation due...!!

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RoubaixCube replied to AlsoSomniloquism | 2 years ago
0 likes

I was about to say the same.... their cars come with speakers that are rated anywhere between 10-30w and some people really like to blast their music when they are driving. By Ford's way of thinking. Does that mean they will be removing speakers from their cars or replacing their current 10-30w speakers with 1-2w versions?? 

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mattsccm replied to RoubaixCube | 2 years ago
1 like

I absolutely refuse to believe  anyone suggesting wearing head phones does not impair awareness. it is irrelevant what the distractions are. Such suggestions always come from those who use them and seem to have developed super powers.

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zeeridesbikes replied to mattsccm | 2 years ago
2 likes

I've always ridden with headphones, it's a way to catch up on my podcasts whilst riding.
 

Not once do I think it's impaired my senses. I must have the super powers you speak of. 

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