Can You Bike With Headphones in Illinois?

Posted by Michael Keating
Monday, November 5, 2012

Source: Illinois Bicycle Law

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Last week, Josh Levin, the Senior Editor at Slate Magazine called me regarding an article he was writing about bike riding while wearing headphones. Josh had a very simple question: Is it legal to ride one’s bicycle in Illinois while wearing headphones? The answer to that simple question, however, is complex and can only be answered as follows: Technically you can legally ride your bike in Illinois while wearing headphones, but you shouldn’t.

Here’s why I give such a convoluted answer to a seemingly simple questions.Section 12-610 of the Illinois Vehicle Code clearly states that the driver of a motor vehicle may not wear headset receivers while driving. The plain language of the statute, therefore, only addresses the driver of a motor vehicle and it does not pertain to a bicyclist. There may be an argument that since a bicycle has the duty to adhere to all rules of the road that this statute of headphones also applies, but the statutory construction of this law is very clear. If the legislature wanted the law to also address bicycles then they would have/should have included bicycles. The legislature didn’t so a fair interpretation is that the intention was only to address operators of motor vehicles.

Nonetheless, the Illinois Department of Transportation has published a “Safe Bicycling in Illinois” booklet that is conveniently available online in PDF form. Page 14 of the booklet offers the simple advice for Headphones: “Don’t wear them! As a bicyclist in traffic, you can hear more of what’s going on around you than motorists can. In fact, people you share the road with expect you to hear their engines, horns, or shouted warnings. If you wear headphones you might not hear something that can help you avoid a crash.” IDOT’s publication doesn’t have the force of law, but it does reflect that the state recognizes the risk that comes with riding while listening to headphones.

I completely agree with IDOT’s position. As not only an attorney that represents victims of bicycle accidents, but also a regular bicyclist, I know the importance of having all of your senses attuned to your surroundings. It’s always nice to listen to some music or news, but when riding your bike it’s better to leave the headphones off and focus on your ride. The risk of getting into a bicycle accident because you were listening to your headphones is not worth the minor reward of some extra entertainment.

If you have any questions regarding this post or an issue involving Illinois personal injury law, please contact Illinois Bicycle Attorney Mike Keating at 312-208-7702 or 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All e-mails and phone calls are returned promptly. All initial consultations are confidential and free.


There is a serious discussion underway on the ChainLink regarding How to Avoid Dooring. Normally this would be cause for celebration. But considering the rather lukewarm acceptance by the urban cycling community of Rules of the Road (in general) I see no reason to get behind this latest knee jerk reaction to deaths that are caused when dooring occurs.

Now before you decide to write me a nasty-gram let me explain what I mean. Good riding etiquette is not like eating at a cafeteria. You either believe that bicycles are vehicles (albeit human powered) or you do not. If you do then you are a person who should (whether you realize it or not) espouse Vehicular Cycling.

The basic premise of this approach as outlined in the Effective Cycling book by John Forester is that you act as if you actually belong on the road and therefore you adhere to the laws in place in each and every jurisdiction and are mindful of the fact that hand signaling your intentions (since you do not have the luxury of turn signals as you might on an automobile) is mandatory.

You do not practice maneuvers that involved threading your way between cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles stuck in traffic other than when you are moving forward in the bike lane (usually on the far right). In essence you wait your turn in traffic just like everyone else. You unlike Randy Cohen you do not end up having others write the following about your work:

Here is the new world order, as told by the most authoritatively ethical person in the country: If you are riding a bike, you don’t have to follow the same rules as cars. BOOM! That means you can do things like treat stop lights as yield signs and even occasionally ride on the sidewalk, all without fear that you are violating some damnable code of morality. This is according to this Sunday’s op-ed piece by Randy Cohen, the Times’ original Ethicist columnist (and, let’s face it, Chuck Klosterman, far and away the best, because what are you even doing with this job, Chuck??). Cohen is an avid cyclist, and says of his flaunting of traffic laws, “although it is illegal, I believe it is ethical. … I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”

Of all the things that have made me take up a consistent stand against the ChainLink Forum is their acquiescence to this sort of drivel. We fought long and hard to get the Boub case properly adjudicated. What that meant was that there was no legal precedence acknowledging our right to be on the road. We were in essence outsiders.

Chapter 11 of the Illinois Vehicle Code specifically states that “[e]very person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall be granted all of the rights . . . applicable to the driver of a vehicle. . . .” However, the Code also specifically excludes bicycles from the general definition of “vehicle.” This legal hairsplitting by the legislature has resulted in bicyclists not fully receiving “all of the rights applicable to the driver of a vehicle.”

The Illinois Supreme Court analyzed this legal quandry in the case of Boub v. Township of Wayne. Boub was a cyclist who was injured when he fell off his bike as a result of a poorly maintained roadway in west suburban Wayne Township. The cyclist sued the township alleging that the defects in the roadway were such a dangerous condition that Wayne Township was negligent and responsible for his injuries.

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected Boub’s claim and held that Boub would only have a case if he could prove that he was both a permitted and intended user of the road. The Supreme Court held that the intended users of public roads are motor vehicles, and because a bike is not classed as a vehicle cyclists were not the intended users. Because of this rule a bicyclist cannot recover unless he also alleges additional facts that prove that the township specifically intended for him to use the road. Examples of this would be if the road was designated as a cycle route, or if there were signs stating that cycling on the road was permitted.

The attorneys at Keating Law Offices believe that Boub was wrongly decided and are engaged in several cases where bicyclists were injured because of defects in the roadway. It is the firm’s position that the Illinois Supreme Court should review its treatment of cyclists to reflect the changes in bike use since it decided Boub.

I happen to agree that the law was wrongly decided. We do deserve to have equal access to the roadway. We should be considered intended users of the roadway. What is disturbing is this trend to vacate our position that we in fact are ready to assume the rights and responsibilities of being another class of vehicles. Instead we have fallen prey to a rather sophomoric, almost infantile approach to vehicle operation by assuming the ethical right to ignore the laws that we do not wish to obey.

It makes me sad and alternately furious that the people who think this way call themselves cycling activists. If they envision themselves are such I think they are in danger of turning the entire cycling movement on its head, and not for the better. What is even more galling is their insistence that pet peeves of theirs however be made illegal.

Reply by Aaron Bussey 6 hours ago
This is the #1 reason I think it should be illegal to ride with ear buds in!
This scares me/bugs me more than anything – soo dangerous!

Despite the fact that I consider riding with ear buds or headphones a poor choice I am sometimes inclined to provide pushback against this sort of fascistic approach simply because I am unwilling to allow this group to both pick and choose the laws they want to obey while at the same time dictating to the rest of us what their wishes for legality ought to be.

This group finds it intolerable that people ride against the traffic while at the same time justified in disobeying stops signs and traffic signals.

For literally decades we saw this kind of duality in thought exemplified by the dual insistences that there was nothing inconsistent with being a pure Capitalist while being a slave owner. We fought a war largely over the rights of states to use forced labor to prop up their economies.

Today we see the heirs to that dualistic thought in the Tea Party who find it logical to have sustained a legacy of Jim Crow segregation (which in essence denied access to the very accommodations paid for with tax dollars) but are insistent on not being taxed because it would mean sharing the wealth in ways that they disapprove.

The fundamental problem here is that a Democracy is like Cycling Advocacy not a cafeteria-style form of government. You either believe that you need to work for a living and not feed off of government (and thus slavery is not consistent with those values) or you do not. You either believe that government should never take your tax dollars without your consent (and thus Jim Crow-style denial of services on the basis of race is abhorrent) or you do not.

What we have here as the movie line goes “is a failure to communicate”. We have petulant, entitled behavior from a select group of people who want to have all of the fun and none of the responsibility versus having to toil away at being folks who are share the road. I frankly cannot be a party to the folly of supporting anything that this sort of group espouses. They have not earned my trust.

There must come a time when the folks who consider themselves activists stop trying to offer up reasons why the word “accident” should not apply to bicycle vs. automobile encounters. This is just another form of politically correct speechification that is not worthy of my consideration until such time as you prove that you are willing to take ownership of the rights and responsibilities sought in the Boub case.

Until that happens I am willing to stand in your way.