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Headphones not illegal for drivers, but they may be dangerous

I've noticed a lot of drivers wearing pretty serious headphones. Is it legal to listen to music on earbuds or headphones while driving? – Helene in Toronto

With music blasting through headphones, there's always a chance you won't hear the sirens of emergency vehicles, or the warning honks of other motorists.

The Ontario Highway Traffic Act doesn't specifically prohibit the use of headphones while driving, but it does require motorists to pull over for approaching police, fire and ambulance vehicles.

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"It is not illegal to wear headphones. But there are some precautions we want to make motorists aware of, because there is a possibility they could receive a charge," says Constable Lisa McIntyre with the Ontario Provincial Police.

"One example is the new move-over law we have for emergency vehicles, which states that, if safe to do so, you are to move out of the way. So you would have to hear the siren to hear the emergency vehicles coming. If you had your earbuds in and radio or cellphone on and you don't hear, then potentially you could be charged for failing to move over."

McIntyre adds that other charges such as driving without due care and attention could apply where an audio device is a contributing factor in a collision.

Along with cellphones, hand-held music devices must be hands-free while driving.

According to Ontario Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Bob Nichols, headphones that are part of a hands-free device are permitted as long as the device is secured.

"The device would have to be inserted into a specially installed mounting device and actually wired into the entertainment system controls so that it would be operated through those controls and the actual device doesn't have to be touched. Additionally, audio devices that are completely integrated into the entertainment system controls of the vehicle (i.e. the device would be entirely operated using the same controls the driver uses for the radio and CD player) are allowed.

"If the headphones are plugged into a hand-held device that is partially connected to the sound system or broadcasts through the sound system from a set radio frequency and still requires the driver to manipulate the device to select content, then content must be selected and the device activated before driving the vehicle. The driver should not be holding or physically manipulating the device, which must be secured in the vehicle so that it is not moving around while the vehicle is in motion (i.e. in a cup holder, affixed to the dashboard in a holster or with Velcro, but not left on the passenger seat)," writes Nichols.

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While hands-free laws are in effect across the country, headphone regulations vary from province to province. In British Columbia for example, only one earpiece can be worn when using a hands-free electronic device and operating a motor vehicle.

It is a driver's responsibility to be completely aware of their surroundings, including visual and audio. If your situational awareness is impaired by headphones, it is clearly unsafe, and you could be charged. Resisting the temptation to fiddle with an MP3 player should also be taken seriously. The University of Calgary Cognitive Ergonomics Research Lab found that collisions nearly doubled when drivers performed tasks such as scanning to locate a particular song.

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About the Author

Joanne Will is based in Toronto. She has been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail since 2009. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. More


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