Here’s a scary scenario: you’ve got a long drive ahead, but your car radio is broken. You’ve got no Bluetooth or speakers to help resist the tedium — it’s just you and the road ahead. So what do you do? Do you brave the roads in silence, or do you put on a pair of headphones to help the time pass a little less slowly?
Before you make a choice, be warned: wearing headphones and listening to music while driving could be considered distracted driving. And even if it’s not specifically illegal across Canada, wearing headphones while driving is a dangerous practice.
Since the rules vary by province, let’s explore the legality of driving with headphones in case you do find yourself without a radio.
The primary issue surrounding driving with headphones is a distraction, and distracted driving is a severe problem. In 2016, it contributed to 21 percent of fatal collisions and 27 percent of serious collisions. Transport Canada lists texting, talking, eating or drinking, and using entertainment or navigation systems as common examples of distracted driving.
Again, the rules vary by province, but the penalties for distracted driving are tough. In B.C., for instance, distracted driving carries a fine of $543 and four demerit points. And if you’re caught twice in 12 months, you can have your license suspended for up to a year.
In Manitoba, the consequences are also harsh. If you’re charged with distracted driving, you’ll face a $672 fine and move five levels down the province’s Driver Safety Rating scale. Your license will also be immediately suspended for three days.
But how are headphones distracting?
It’s true: many provincial distracted driving laws focus on using hand-held devices at the wheel. But wearing headphones is hands-free, so why can it lead to distracted driving charges?
Simply put, headphones impair your hearing ability — a crucial part of road awareness. In May 2021, Ford studied the impacts of wearing headphones on drivers’ spatial awareness. They found that drivers listening to music through headphones reacted an average of 4.2 seconds slower than drivers without headphones. And when you’re travelling at high speeds, 4.2 seconds is a long time.
And in 2010, the American Geriatrics Society determined that drivers with hearing impairment performed significantly worse during a driving test. We may take it for granted, but our hearing alerts us to things like emergency vehicles and sudden changes in traffic speed.
Noticing emergency vehicles while you drive is imperative. Not only is it dangerous to impede emergency vehicles, but you could face a hefty punishment, too. Again, the rules vary by province, but in Ontario, failure to respond to emergency vehicles carries a fine and demerit points for first offenders. For further incidents, though, you could face jail time.
Laws by province and territory
Since the provinces and territories largely govern their own transportation, there’s no singular answer to the legality of driving with headphones. While it’s dangerous everywhere, it’s only explicitly illegal in some places. So let’s cover the laws by province and territory:
Quebec strictly prohibits drivers from wearing headphones in both ears, and motorists could face charges up to $200. The same rule applies to cyclists and mobility scooters. Drivers can, however, wear a headphone in one ear.
Like Quebec, Ontario allows drivers to wear headphones in one ear. The province also allows hands-free communication if the driver uses an earpiece, lapel microphone or Bluetooth.
However, if there’s a collision, police may consider your headphones — even if you’re not at fault. Plus, you may not be covered by your insurance if you’re driving with headphones.
While B.C. allows drivers to use headphones in one ear, it must be for communication — listening to music through headphones is illegal. Drivers caught with headphones in both ears could face a $368 fine. Plus, these rules apply even if your phone is dead.
Prince Edward Island
P.E.I expressly forbids Stage 1 (newly-licensed) drivers from using headphones while driving, and the province boasts high fines: between $575 and $1,275 for distracted driving.
Saskatchewan permits experienced drivers (those no longer in the graduated driver licensing program) to use wired headphones while driving.
Distracted driving laws exceptions
While other provinces and territories have strict distracted driving laws, they don’t all mention driving with headphones. Provinces and territories without specific headphone laws include Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon.
Headphones while driving in Canada conclusion
The laws surrounding driving with headphones in Canada are complicated. So if you’re planning a cross-country road trip without a radio or Bluetooth, watch out: in some provinces, there are no rules against headphones; in Ontario and Quebec, you can only wear headphones in one ear; in B.C, you can wear one earbud, but you can’t listen to music; and in P.E.I, if you’re a new driver, you can’t wear headphones at all.
Yeah, it’s a lot to take in.
But there’s an easy way to avoid the confusion — don’t drive with headphones at all. It’s that simple. Headphones make you less responsive on the road, and no playlist or podcast is worth a collision. Plus, should you wear headphones while in a collision, your insurance may not cover you, and the police may charge you with distracted driving, even if you weren’t at fault.
And so, while driving with headphones may not always be illegal, it is always unsafe. Driving in silence may not be fun, but it beats the alternatives — don’t drive with headphones.
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