Is it legal to wear headphones while driving?

Damien O’Carroll
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You may have noticed people driving with headphones on and wondered “is that legal?”. Or you may regularly do it yourself and have never thought about it.

But is it actually  legal?

As it turns out, yes it is, as the rules around device usage while driving currently only apply to phones and not any other device, such as CD players, MP3 players or cassette decks (remember those?).

Legally, you are not allowed to do the following with your phone in hand while driving:

  • Make, receive, or end a call.
  • Create, send, or read a text message or email.
  • Create, send, or view a video message.
  • Communicate in any similar manner.

You can, of course, make calls if the phone is secured in a mount fixed to the vehicle, as long as you manipulate or look at the phone “infrequently and briefly.”

According to a spokesperson from the NZ Police, legislation prohibiting hand held mobile phone use while driving does not specifically extend to other distractions, such as reading documents and use of portable electronic devices, headphones or earbuds.

However, this isn’t a clever loophole as anyone who is not paying attention to driving safely can be charged with the far more serious offence of careless driving.

If a police officer believes you are driving carelessly as a result of using an electronic device, reading or wearing headphones, you can be charged with careless driving, regardless of whether you are involved in a crash or not.

Looking down while driving, weaving within or across lanes, and inconsistent speeds and following distances are all signs that police look for that suggest a driver is distracted and not focusing on the road.

And while wearing headphones while driving is actually legal, that still doesn’t make it a good idea.

Even the loudest music played through a car stereo (at least an OEM one) won’t block out external sounds like headphones can, and blocking out sound entirely (as modern noise-cancelling headphones are capable of) can make it difficult, or even impossible, to hear emergency vehicles and other important sounds around you.

Recent research from the University of Maryland in the USA has indicated that wearing headphones causes a deeper form of sensory deprivation than even hearing loss which, in turn increases the cognitive distraction of listening to music - which can sometimes be as distracting as talking on the phone while driving - all of which leads the potential for careless driving.

Yes, wearing headphones is legal while driving, but it is still a terrible idea and could easily lead to a serious charge, regardless of whether or not you are involved in a crash.

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