L.A. Can't Drive » Is It Illegal to Wear Headsets or Earplugs While Driving?

Is It Illegal to Wear Headsets or Earplugs While Driving?

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Here’s a submission I got the other day regarding headphones:

“I have to ask, have you seen any drivers wearing earbuds/earphones while on the road?

I was at a stoplight at Fair Oaks Ave/Huntington Drive in South Pasadena when I took this picture of my rear-view mirror. It shows the driver behind me singing and bopping behind the wheel (apologies for the poor quality photograph). The photo doesn’t show it, but the driver behind me was wearing earbuds — I could clearly see two white wires leading up to her ears.

Isn’t it illegal in California for people to have headphones/earphones/earbuds while driving? I think it’s bad enough people still have their phones glued to their ears and textaholics are still on the road despite the laws, but do we really need to have people too preoccupied with their music to pay attention to the road?”

Yes, it is illegal for anyone operating a motor vehicle or a bicycle to wear a headset covering or earplugs in both ears. (California v.c. 27400)  People operating emergency vehicles, the hearing impaired, and certain construction and maintenance personnel are exempt.  Given that this person was dancing behind the wheel with headphones in her ears, I doubt she was hearing impaired.  What, the radio isn’t good enough these days?  You can also buy devices that can connect your MP3 players directly to your stereo system.  So I would have to say that we have yet another selfish, apathetic, oblivious Angeleno driver on our hands, though I’m sure she would just call herself “laid back”.  Maybe she’d like to chill out with a moving violation and 8 hours in traffic school.


46 Responses to “Is It Illegal to Wear Headsets or Earplugs While Driving?”

  1. Thanks for clearing that up. I thought it was illegal to block both ears to outside noise –what if you don’t hear an ambulance coming up behind you or hear another driver honking?

  2. Somewhat parallel to the topic of wearing earplugs in both ears: is it illegal for the hearing-impaired to drive? Let’s say a person is 60% hearing-impaired in each ear. Legal or illegal?

    Have a good day. = )

  3. Deaf drivers are allowed to drive in California.

  4. Yes, part of the problem is the way the law is written.
    While taking an Accident Investigation course in college (Criminal Justice major), the new law had come up (in the 80’s).

    First thing i noticed was the loophole

    “…in both ears”.

    Since i rode my bike a lot, i always had my left ear (closest to the road), open so i could hear oncoming traffic (plus, wore a rearview mirror on my glasses).

    The same would, no-doubt apply to motorized vehicles as well – but being that most cars/trucks have radios & speakers (your’s were stolen? aw, that’s so sad), the cars speakers should be sufficient to get the sound out.

  5. What I am wondering is why drive-up ATM’s have Braille on them. Does that mean that a driver that is blind will drive up to one and use it? Just a thought.

  6. BTW – I’m not trying to make light of anyone’s handicap, I am just trying to understand the logic.

  7. Rikki, yeah I’ve heard that question posed before. Same reason why driveway and parkway definitions should be reversed, I suppose :).

  8. Is it illegal in LA County to wear earplugs in both ears while walking on a public sidewalk? A student of mine was cited for wearing music earplugs by a local officer when she was caught jaywalking. I thought the earplug law was only for driving.

  9. Terri, interesting question. The citation may have been for something else, like not paying attention while crossing the street or something to that effect on top of the jaywalking citation. I’m assuming your student was given 2 citations, correct? Certain municipalities within L.A. County also have their own rules, such as riding on sidewalks with bikes (some allow it, others don’t). Does anyone else know the answer to this?

  10. Rikki, the reason for the Braille on an ATM is the manufacturer does not want to have to stamp out two different key board plates (indoor & drive thru) so just combines the two.

  11. Mick, I can’t tell you how many years I’ve heard comedians and other people tell that joke about Braille keypads at drive-thru ATMs. But what you just said makes perfect sense…so much so that I’m almost embarrassed that it didn’t occur to me sooner. Thanks for the info :).

  12. It is a fairly new law in California, that you cannot have headphones on both ears for bicycles, now either. I don’t think this law was widely publicized, because I just recently found out about it myself after a friend of mine almost got a ticket. But I looked it up, and it is the law in California for several years now.

  13. Read paragraph “d”

  14. Streetwise, please clarify. Are you equating headphones to personal hearing protectors, because that certainly would be paradoxical with all the research out there showing people suffering from hearing loss due to listening to music too loudly with their headphones.

  15. What if the headphones are connected to your phone? in order to follow the other law of “hands free” for talking on your cell phone?

  16. You are not allowed to have both earbuds in your ears, only in one ear or the other. Many headphones made for cell phones exist because you can stream/play music, video, the radio, etc. from your phone. However, the law is very clear that while operating a vehicle, you are not allowed to have headphones over both ears unless you’re hearing impaired…and in those cases, the headphones are likely sound amplifying devices and not a means to listen to music.

  17. Re: Braille on the drivethru ATM:

    Respectfully, everybody is ignoring the obvious: If you have a blind passenger and you need to take them to the ATM. They sit in the rear seat behind the driver, they can use the ATM as normal. The driver just needs to pull farther forward.

  18. Victor, that makes a lot of sense. Wow…lol, makes me feel stupid. Totally makes sense now.

  19. What the law says is you can’t wear “a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears.” But there are a few headphones that don’t cover or plug and leave plenty of room for sound.

    Also, about the age of the law: Covering your ears while driving has been against the law since at least the late ’70s or so. That’s when the Sony Walkman came out and headphones while driving became a problem.

  20. Ted, please note this link and the cut and paste below http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d12/vc27400.htm. Note that earplugs are included, and the law was amended in 2004.:

    Wearing of Headsets or Earplugs

    27400. A person operating a motor vehicle or bicycle may not wear a headset covering, or earplugs in, both ears. This prohibition does not apply to any of the following:

    (a) A person operating authorized emergency vehicles, as defined in Section 165.

    (b) A person engaged in the operation of either special construction equipment or equipment for use in the maintenance of any highway.

    (c) A person engaged in the operation of refuse collection equipment who is wearing a safety headset or safety earplugs.

    (d) A person wearing personal hearing protectors in the form of earplugs or molds that are specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels. The plugs or molds shall be designed in a manner so as to not inhibit the wearer’s ability to hear a siren or horn from an emergency vehicle or a horn from another motor vehicle.

    (e) A person using a prosthetic device that aids the hard of hearing.

    Amended Sec. 45, Ch. 594, Stats. 2003. Effective January 1, 2004.

  21. I-95, U-405, please note what I actually wrote.

    1. I did not include earplugs in my comment. That’s your inference. I only referred to the type of cheap headphones that do not cover or plug the ears. I don’t know what they’re called, but I have a pair, so I know they exist. Look around; you’ll find some.
    2. When the law was amended is beside the point. The fact is that it’s been against the law to cover the ears since shortly after the Sony Walkman became popular, about the late ’70s.

    I hope that helps.

  22. Ted, apologies, I reread what you wrote. Regardless, my understanding is that the law doesn’t give allowance to earplugs that still allow plenty of room for sound. In reality, no earplugs or headsets are completely soundproof (unless you’re talking about those high-tech sound booth studio headsets). And since it’s been illegal to cover your ears while driving since the 70’s, where headsets were poorer in quality, it would make more sense today that the law should be stronger enforced.

    Technicalities aside, it doesn’t seem very difficult to just leave one earbud in and one out while driving. I’m focused on earbuds since that’s what I see the most on the road. And quite a few of these drivers seem either distracted or completely unaware of traffic conditions around them. Law enforcement should be pulling these drivers over and citing them more often. Unfortunately, this isn’t being done (not surprising).

    Thanks for the input and clarifications.

  23. Thanks for your reply.

    They’re not earplugs. They are little, round speakers, about a half inch in diameter. They don’t cover or plug. But, I admit, there’s a risk that some passing cop might think they do.

    Since they don’t obstruct sound, their only potential for hazard is the same as playing the car’s mounted speakers too loud. The advantage is that you can they sound better than speakers.

    I understand from talking to a few cops that they have lots of discretion. What to one cop may look like a clear violation may to another one seem fine. So whether they plug, cover, or just insert, you might get stopped. I would just like to see someone go to court over it and see what a fair-minded judge said.

  24. I suppose the technical term would be earbud headphones. It would be interesting to find out how many of these cases actually end up in court and what the rulings are in those situations. Most people, I would think, would just pay the fine and move on with it. If an officer or the judge could deem headphones as headsets, then I suppose this vehicle code would be clearer with respects to banning any of these earbuds. And yes, wearing them would be analogous to playing the stereo too loudly, though I personally still get more ambient sound from loud speakers than I do from loud earbuds. Historically, I believe listening to the radio in the car was deemed illegal at one point (though I don’t recall which state, or maybe it was nationwide).

  25. Just recently in Richmond, California, my fiancee got pulled over for being on the phone but then the police officer noticed that he was not on the phone. At that instant officer noticed that he had earbud headphones and instead he sited him for the ear buds which only one of the earbuds is functional on the set. Being out of state,he was not talking on the phone, he was listening to his gps, and as we went into the chevron station we ran into another officer and that officer after hearing our explanation to what happened stated that she would of not have given him a sitation. We will see what the judge states.

  26. The law definitely leaves room for the human element (hence trial by jury). There are plenty of situations where the officer issues a warning and not a citation. In your fiance’s experience, a warning probably would have been more prudent.

  27. In looking at a part of the law above.
    “(d) A person wearing personal hearing protectors in the form of earplugs or molds that are specifically designed to attenuate injurious noise levels. The plugs or molds shall be designed in a manner so as to not inhibit the wearer’s ability to hear a siren or horn from an emergency vehicle or a horn from another motor vehicle.”

    My understanding is that noise canceling headphones don’t block out sirens. Anyway that seemed to be the case when I was trying out some Bose and a firetruck went by. I could hear the siren sooner than other people in the store.
    Does that mean that noise canceling headphones that might enhance a siren would fall under the exception I reposed above?

  28. I think that provision is meant to qualify what construction workers operating heavy machinery might have to wear (like concrete cutters, etc.). Even so, these workers would still need to hear sirens and horns from emergency vehicles. What I see is that a person wearing earbud headsets/headphones in both ears just to listen to music on their smart phone doesn’t fall into any of the allowances in sub points a thru e. I think Ted made a good point regarding whether earbuds can be considered headset coverings or earplugs. It would be interesting to get actual law enforcement to comment on this issue rather than hearsay because I’ve heard both sides argued for.

  29. That is a good point. I live in Arizona so I called Arizona DPS to ask about it. They said there is no law against wearing any kind of headphones or ear buds or whatever.

    I’m going to test some full coverage noise canceling headphones while someone else is driving and see if I think they are a distraction or a help. Of course, no law will make someone a safe driver if the driver hasn’t made a decision to be a safe driver and acted on that decision.

    As a side note…I find California drivers to be a lot better than Arizona drivers.

  30. Cody, you don’t happen to be in Phoenix, are you? I get a lot of people writing in from Phoenix who constantly complain about the drivers there. So it’s legal to drive around with headphones in Arizona according to the officers you spoke with? Pretty interesting. When I have a free moment, I’d like to see if there is similar wording in the Arizona vehicle code to that found in the California vehicle code.

  31. Yes…I’m from the Phoenix area.
    since I started reading this thread a few days ago I’ve been paying more attention. (I commute 130 miles per day so I have lots of material) When I see someone make a mistake that seems to be a result total lack of attention to driving…Most of them do not seem to be wearing headphones. I couldn’t really make an argument that headphones contribute to lack of attention more than a loud stereo, the friend in the passenger seat, etc. Although it would certainly seem that way.

    As for Phoenix vs LA drivers…the biggest thing I notices that in LA if I use my turn to change lanes drivers let me in most of the time. In Phoenix, it seems like it feels like I’m broadcasting my intentions and drivers use that to make sure I can’t make my lane change.

  32. Hey Cody, can you tell me what roads you drive on in L.A. because I would like to travel on those roads. In fact, one of my biggest pet peeves about L.A. drivers is that not only do they not signal but they also fail to respect other drivers who signal. Inattentive coasting, failure to change speeds to allow a driver in, speeding up to “lane block” (as I call it), etc. I see it all the time here, and it’s one of the repeated offenses that got me thinking about starting this blog six years ago.

  33. I was just ticketed for wearing headphones. I drive a VW bus, not like the icons you use in your ratings. It is noisy inside. My noise-reducing headphones cut out most all my engine noise, letting me hear the radio, emergency vehicles, and even the buzz of the cop pulling me over. The only thing I could get him to say was that it’s against the law in California. I don’t think he could hear me so well since he was wearing a helmet with built-in headphones. I’ll see him in court.

  34. Let us know how it pans out. I’m curious to hear a judge’s take on this.

  35. I’m pretty sure using your camera while driving is illegal as well…

  36. I believe you meant to spell “You’re”, not “Your”, something I would be careful to check next time you make up a handle like that. The use of cameras taking pictures has been discussed to death with both the media and readers throughout this site. Perhaps do some research before you have a knee-jerk reaction to essentially dismiss all the asinine behavior prevalent on the L.A. streets through redirection. I suppose you never take a sip of water or browse the radio when you drive? If so, then you have a critique there. If not, then realize that it takes a lot less time to snap a photo than it takes to do either of those activities. However, yes, it’s always safety first, so the bulk of the photos are taken while stopped or by a passenger. Safe driving (and happy spelling).

  37. that is so stupid people should have common sense

  38. why is it mostly legal in most states that bs

  39. My headphone-wearing defense, that my noise-reducing headphones cut my engine roar, enabling me to hear, was thrown out by the judge who didn’t understand (he tried on the ‘phones, but there was no noise to reduce in the courtroom). And though he acknowledged that a $200 fine was a bit steep, the total bail was forfeit.

    I think that motorcycle cops have the same technology built into their helmets.

  40. Dave, thanks for the update. I’m sorry that you didn’t win the case, but at least your shared experience is proof to our readers that you can be cited for wearing headphones in both ears while driving. Are your headphones the kind that cover your ears or are they noise-cancelling ear buds?

  41. They totally cover the ears, similar to the Bose headphones I see advertised (even on this site I think).

    The cop had moved around me in traffic to make sure both ears were covered before ticketing me. But I was unaware of him til he buzzed me. Not unaware because of the ‘phones however: I was on my way to work and it was very early 🙂 I was not listening to anything on them.

  42. Ah, ok. The gray area in the law is whether or not ear buds qualify as headsets, and therefore wearing them warrant a citation. I can see how headphones that cover your ears could have little wiggle room in accordance with the letter of the law.

  43. Ok, are people who write the law really this incompetent? I have a set of ear buds (one for each ear) w/ built in mic and button for answering and terminating calls which was included w/ my smart phone. I use them when driving so I don’t get a ticket for holding my phone to my ear, but if I have both ear buds in my ears, that’s illegal? So I have to leave one out. Ok, but people can get away with blasting their music in the car, even louder than a volume level most would listen to w/ ear buds, right? I know, I know… I know exactly what’s coming next… “But it is illegal to blast music in the car”. So then, we have to keep the music coming from a stereo system at a comfortable volume, lest we have to make having a stereo system in a car punishable by law as well. Hence, the driver has to be trusted. So why cannot the driver be trusted with the volume level of their ear pieces (whether 1 or 2 pieces) just as drivers are trusted that they keep the volume at safe levels, using stereos equipped with at least 4 different speakers in the car, and many times 6 speakers these days? My car came with 6 speakers. One can hear any outside noise that is humanly possible to hear with your windows rolled up if your volume level is at a comfortable (not loud) listening level, be it a stereo or an ear piece in each ear, even if your ear pieces are noise isolating, much more so if they’re not noise isolating. This especially makes the bicycle issue total BS. If I actually got pulled over while riding my bicycle, I should at least be able prove to an officer that my ear pieces allow background noise to be heard. If so, a bicyclist should be allowed to wear that SET of headphones while bicycling. The law is not technical enough regarding this issue. Music listening ear pieces come as a set for a reason. While ear pieces are this heated issue, what I’d like to know is WHY all these supped up, GARGANTUAN, monster sized trucks are legal to drive and park in public places, easily taking up two parking spaces, and are extremely noisy, along with some cars AND motorcycles that produce such LOUD ass engine noise, loud enough to cause ear damage when they come roaring or screaming past you, or scare the living shit out your dog or cat, are all legal. Speaking about the monster trucks… our public roads were not made for normal, everyday driving of such large trucks, but manufacturers are allowed to build and market these enormous things for just about any arrogant a-hole to buy and act like a complete ass behind the wheel of these things. Oh, but ear pieces… Now that’s a problem. Let’s not forget all the health benefits that come with these wonderfully thick and smelly exhaust producing vehicles that we all breath when we’re exposed to them. When I open my windows for some fresh morning air, here comes my neighbor, starting his monster truck, revving up the engine over and over, because I know how absolutely necessary that is, and here comes the toxic cloud of exhaust through my window, getting trapped inside my place. I then have to turn the fans on and evacuate my own place daily. I live like this everyday and it’s total BS! I’ll tell you, some of these laws and financial problems we have really make me wonder about those we have in higher positions. I better quit before I move on to another topic.

  44. Rick, thanks for venting! I totally feel you on many points. I, for one, don’t understand why so many freeways in CA feel the need to add a double yellow line by the carpool lane. Most states I’ve driven in only have a dotted white line dividing the carpool and other lanes on the freeway. Getting out on the 134 Fwy from the carpool lane to make it to the 170 is a specific example of where poor city planning coupled with an asinine ordinance adds to the havoc of driving in this town, especially during rush hour.

    Regarding headphones, those ear buds were certainly meant for music, and not necessarily for use while driving. With that said, I agree that the law is vague, and I absolutely see the contradictions in logic you mentioned. Other commenters made solid points regarding the law in that as it is written, headsets could be devices that completely cover the ears (think construction worker, noise cancelling head sets). Do ear buds qualify as head sets? Some say yes, some say no. The headache of fighting such a citation issued from a cop trying to make quota just isn’t worth it in my book.

    On a personal note, I tend to see quite a bit of oblivious driving behavior from those wearing ear buds in both ears. Coincidence? Causation? Correlation? I don’t know, but I can only go by what I see. Perhaps these people would be just as clueless even if they weren’t listening to music.

  45. can a bus driver where headsets to block out the noise?

  46. Kris, according to the DMV, the only headsets approved are for working vehicle equipment to protect the ears from excessive noise (like construction equipment) or headsets to amplify sound for the hearing impaired.

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