Maybe your car stereo is on the fritz. Maybe you don’t have one. Maybe you do, and you just don’t have a way to get your favorite tunes from your smartphone to your automotive audio system. Or maybe you’re driving your Gran to her quilting club and just want to rock out to some Napalm Death without giving her a heart attack. For whatever reason, if you ended up on this page it appears that you’re considering putting on a pair of headphones or earphones for your daily commute or an upcoming road trip. And chances are also good that you’re wondering just how much trouble you might get into for doing so.
As you might expect, the laws vary from state-to-state. In some states (and some provinces in Canada), there are few if any legal restrictions on the wearing of headphones, earphones, or headsets while behind the wheel. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and we’ll touch on that in a bit; it simply means you wouldn’t be breaking current laws. In others states and provinces, wearing in- or on-ear devices is strictly verboten, except in the case of headsets built into motorcycle helmets and/or hearing aids and the like.
And in some states, the laws tend to be so specific that you really need to study the language to know whether you’re likely to face legal trouble for wearing headphones or earphones. According to the AAA, which maintains a detailed list of state-by-state motor laws, the following states and federal district have no (or virtually no) legal prohibitions on wearing headphones, earphones, or headsets while behind the wheel:
- Washington, D.C.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
- Rhode Island
As for the rest of the states, here are the specific rules and exceptions as listed by AAA, but keep in mind that these are simplified summaries, so you’d be better off reading the language of your state carefully just to make sure you’re in the clear:
- Alaska: “Wearing an audio headset or earplugs is not permitted while driving. Exempts headsets when used and designed to improve a driver’s hearing ability or use navigational devices.”
- Arizona: “Licensees of child care facilities must ensure that an individual who uses a motor vehicle to transport enrolled children does not use audio headphones while the car is in motion. School bus drivers may not wear headsets whenever the bus is in motion.”
- California: “Wearing headsets or earplugs in both ears is not permitted while driving or operating a bicycle, unless designed to aid hearing or specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels.”
- Colorado: “Wearing earphones is not permitted while driving. Exempts hearing devices built into protective headgear and headsets covering only one ear and used with a hand-held telephone.”
- Florida: “Wearing a headset, headphone, or other listening device, other than a hearing aid or instrument for the improvement of defective human hearing, is not permitted while driving. Use in one ear for communicating with a central base operation or in conjunction with a cellular telephone is permitted.”
- Georgia: “Wearing a headset or headphone which would impair that person’s ability to hear, or any device which impairs a person’s vision, is not permitted while driving. Exempts headsets or headphones used for communication purposes.”
- Illinois: “Wearing headset receivers is not permitted while driving. Exempts intercom helmets on motorcycles, cellular phone earpieces, and single-sided headsets.”
- Massachusetts: “Wearing headphones is not permitted while driving, unless the headphones are used for communication in connection with controlling the course or movement of said vehicle.”
- Minnesota: “Wearing headphones or earphones in both ears simultaneously for the purposes of receiving or listening to broadcasts or reproductions from radios, tape decks, or other sound-producing or transmitting devices, is not permitted while driving. Exempts the use of hearing aid devices.”
- New York: “Wearing more than 1 earphone attached to a radio, tape player, or other audio device is not permitted while driving.”
- Oregon: “Wearing radio headsets while driving is permitted with some local exceptions.
- Pennsylvania: Wearing or using 1 or more headphones or earphones is not permitted while driving. Exempts the use of hearing aids, and the use of a headset in conjunction with a cellular telephone that only provides sound through one ear and allows surrounding sounds to be heard with the other ear.”
- Virginia: “Using earphones is not permitted while operating a motor vehicle, bicycle, electric power-assisted bicycle, or moped. Exempts hearing aids and motorcycle helmet earphones.”
- Washington state: “Wearing any headset or earphones connected to any electronic device capable of receiving a radio broadcast or playing a sound recording, in which the headset or earphones muffle or exclude other sounds, is not permitted while driving. Exempts motorcycle helmets with approved built-in headsets, and hands-free wireless communications systems.”
That covers most of the laws. But what about simple common sense? If you happen to live in one of the states with no restrictions on driving or cycling while wearing headphones, Phiaton still recommends that you play it safe. At the very least, wear an earphone in only one ear, and set your smartphone’s audio output to mono, if you insist on driving while listening privately. Wireless headphones like Phiaton’s neck band style BT 120 NC or foldable BT 390 are also a safer bet since you won’t have to worry about getting tangled up in a cable.
Above all else, be safe out there. Anything that distracts you while driving presents not only a threat to your well-being, but also that of your passengers and everyone else on the road with you.
By Dennis Burger
November 13, 2017