COMMENT & ANALYSIS: “Cyclists face €40 spot fines for using earphones, says minister” was the claim in a herald.ie headline yesterday. Understandably, people online both from Ireland and abroad took this to mean that the Irish government had banned use of headphones while cycling.
The problem, however, is that no minister had said what the headline in the herald.ie claimed. There is no law in place and no public plan to fine or ban headphones while cycling.
We know that the Herald were warned that this was the case, but yet still went ahead with the misleading story and headline or have made no attempt to correct it.
What did the minister say? Responding to somewhat the same parliamentary questions on the use of headphones while cycling — first by former Labour minister Ruairi Quinn and then current junior Labour minister Kevin Humphreys — the minister gave what looks to be a stock answer. We already reported on Ruairi Quinn’s question back on November 6.
The minister said: “The use of headphones by cyclists is not a specific offence under road traffic legislation.”
He added: “I have however made the offence of driving a pedal cycle without resonable consideration a fixed charge offence. All road users have a responsibility to behave in a way which is conductive to their safety and that of other road users. A cyclist that puts themselves or other road users at risk, by the use of headphones for example, could be considered to be driving without reasonable consideration. The enforcement of this fixed charge offence would be a matter for An Garda Siochána.”
Driving a pedal cycle without resonable consideration
The minister’s phrasing muddled the waters a bit, the wearing of headphones alone is not an offence. While “driving a pedal cycle without resonable consideration” is a broad offence, we understand that it can’t be used for things which just look like they could be dangerous.
So, it’s hard to understand how wearing headphones alone could be covered under even the broad “driving a pedal cycle without resonable consideration” offence. Wind or traffic noise can be so loud that hearing makes little difference and the audio in the headphones can be at such a volume where you can still hear what’s going on around you. As well as using low volume, many people also keep one ear clear.
It would be a different matter if the headphone wearing could be linked to other wrongdoing — for example, wearing headphones and not looking around you while cycling past a junction. But, in such a case, it’s really the not looking part which is the issue.
“Eyes are more critical than the ears”
Campaigners say that the issue isn’t as clear cut as some people think. Colm Ryder of the Dublin Cycling Campaign said: “Overall we encourage safe cycling, as much as we also like to see safe driving! Some cyclists, of all ages, wear headphones when cycling. It has been anecdotally pointed out to us in Dublin Cycling Campaign, that it is the volume level that people use on their headphones that is critical. It is possible to cycle safely with headphones, once the cyclist is sure that traffic sounds are audible. In essence the eyes are more critical than the ears, and in particular the ability to turn and look behind when moving out of your regular stream of traffic, as well as being aware of what is ahead. Many cyclists wear ear muffs or woolly hats in winter, which cover the ears. These also muffle sounds.”
He added: “Compare this to car drivers listening to radios in cars at various volumes, and getting distracted by various items or pieces of music!? As both a driver and a cyclist I realise how easily this can occur. The same of course applies to the use of phones and handsets in cars.”
The question of what “driving a pedal cycle without resonable consideration” actually means is likely to drag on and on. IrishCycle.com will hopefully be looking at what the district courts have accepted it to be before on-the-spot fines were introduced, but that’s another article.
There is a question as to whether the offence is too broad or not to be left up to Garda discretion. Many people who cycle who we have talked to have encountered Gardai who do not know traffic law very well; for example, some think helmets and high-via are mandatory, when that’s not the case. Should this vague offence be left out of the on-the-spot fines system? Could it be one of the cycling-related offences left up to district courts?