Is it illegal to drive with headphones on?

March 01, 2024 by

Many of us live – and drive – with a constant smartphone-generated soundtrack, piped directly into our ears by way of headphones or earphones. 

But is it legal to drive while wearing headphones?

In this article, we’ll explain the legality of driving with headphones on and the possible implications for your safety on the road.

Is driving with headphones on illegal?

It’s not actually illegal to drive a car in the UK while wearing headphones or earpods; however, if wearing headphones detracts from your ability to drive safely, then it becomes a problem. 

If your headphones block out the surrounding noises when you’re driving, you could be unaware of sounds from your car and the traffic around you. This could put you and other road users in danger, which could result in you being charged with careless or dangerous driving if a police officer sees you and believes that the wearing of headphones was affecting the safety of your driving. 

This is merely the enforcement of Rule 148 of The Highway Code, which states: “Safe driving and riding needs concentration. Avoid distractions when driving or riding, such as loud music (this may mask other sounds).”

In some countries, using headphones while driving is definitely illegal. For example, since July 2015, France has banned all drivers, riders and cyclists from ‘bringing to their ear’ any device capable of emitting sound (excluding corrective deafness electronics), such as headphones and Bluetooth headsets, in order to listen to music or make or receive telephone calls. Anyone not complying with these rules could face a €150 fine or three points on their driving licence. If you are planning a European road trip and there’s any chane of you wearing some form of heaphones while driving, we recommend checking the rules for each country you are visiting.

Why is it dangerous to use headphones while driving?

There are serious concerns about the effects on drivers and what they can or can’t hear while wearing headphones or earphones. The challenge is how quickly a driver can shift their awareness from what they hear in their headphones to any external sounds, or warning signals from their car, which could slow their response. This is considered dangerous enough to create a risk in an emergency situation – especially if the headphones have noise-cancelling technology.

Wearing headphones while driving can create more problems than listening to dashboard-mounted audio sources because headphones reduce acoustic cues and can divert a driver’s attention from important auditory information, such as the sirens of an approaching emergency services vehicle.

Is it illegal to drive while wearing headphones?

There has also been research to find out whether a reduction in vehicle and roadway sounds can lead drivers to underestimate vehicle speed. The reaction time of respondents was measured when completing tasks such as shifting gears, operating the window controls and reacting to hazards. The results of the study were consistent with other research that suggested drivers report less accurate judgements of speed when their hearing is reduced. This underestimation of speed is significant when you consider that drivers wearing headphones might not only respond slower, but could also tend to drive faster. Neither of these is good for road safety, so it can only be worse when the two are combined.

Another issue with audio being listened to in the headphones is that in research projects, some types of music have been shown to make drivers speed up and be more aggressive: on the other hand, a podcast or audiobook could dominate your attention, instead of the road ahead. Anything that diminishes a driver’s focus on the road is inherently dangerous, but headphones add a potential contributory factor in any problems that may arise.

Are there any penalties which relate to driving with headphones on?

If the police consider that the wearing of headphones has impaired a driver’s ability to drive safely, they can choose to prosecute you for careless or even dangerous driving.

There are various penalties for different careless driving offences, and it’s up to the charging police officer to decide on the offence. Some offences, such as driving without due care and attention, can carry an on-the-spot fine of £100 and three penalty points on your driving licence. 

In more serious cases, perhaps involving collisions, drivers can be charged with a dangerous driving offence, with a maximum penalty of £5,000 and up to 11 penalty points on their licence.

What would happen if I got in a collision while wearing headphones?

If you’re involved in an accident while wearing headphones, the police might consider you to be at fault because you were driving carelessly. The nature of the collision will be analysed and you could find yourself resolving the matter in court, if the police think that you’re at fault.  

In the final analysis, wearing headphones while driving is risky – and rather unnecessary. You can sync your phone with your car (via Bluetooth, or Android Auto/Apple CarPlay) and listen to your music, messages and phone calls via your car’s speakers. The sound might even be better, but some feel that handsfree phone calls while driving can still distract the driver. You still need to take care and be aware of other sounds around you. 

In short, ‘can the cans’ when driving (in other words, don’t wear headphones while driving).

Do the same rules apply for motorcyclists?

As Rule 148 of The Highway Code specifically talks about “Safe driving and riding”, the same rules for the use of headphones or earpods apply for motorcyclists.