Is it legal to wear headphones while driving in North Carolina?
Yes. Sort of.
Though delayed from its original release date in October 2016, Apple still advertises its much anticipated “Airpod” headphones for release in the beginning of 2017. The headphones are wireless and boast speakerphone capability in its signature ‘pod’ design with competitive sound quality and comfort. Apple lists the headphones at a retail price of $169.00, a price well in excess of its current wired version, but one on par with, or cheaper than, many headphones in the Airpod’s prospective class.
In anticipation of their release, I felt it helpful to answer a question I often receive at the various dinner parties I’m invited to and attend (just kidding, I’m not that cool): Is it legal to wear headphones while driving? In North Carolina, the short answer is that yes, it is legal to wear headphones while driving. Many states in the nation have laws that regulate a driver’s ability to wear headphones while driving – and many more ban it outright. North Carolina is not one of them.
The reasons for banning the headphones are obvious, chief among them is that they substantially interfere with a driver’s ability to hear and respond to emergency sirens or other roadway emergencies that arise while driving. That is why in California it is legal to listen to music in headphones while driving as long as only one pod is in the driver’s ear and the other ear is open to hear and respond to emergency situations.
While no law in North Carolina specifically prohibits the use of headphones while driving, that does not mean drivers in the state can use them with impunity. For one thing, it should be noted that if any driver intends to travel beyond the jurisdiction of North Carolina, it may or may not be legal in the bordering state. (South Carolina – legal; Tennessee – legal; Georgia – illegal; Virginia – illegal). For another, and perhaps more salient thing, the effect of wearing headphones may cause a driver to violate already existing traffic laws in North Carolina.
To extrapolate on the above-contemplated scenario, if a driver in North Carolina cannot hear emergency sirens, and fails to react according to specific statutory directions to allow an emergency vehicle to pass, that is against the law in North Carolina.
N.C.G.S. § 20-157 sets forth as follows: Upon the approach of any law enforcement or fire department vehicle or public or private ambulance or rescue squad emergency service vehicle, or a vehicle operated by the Division of Marine Fisheries of the Department of Environmental Quality, or the Division of Parks and Recreation of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, or the North Carolina Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services when traveling in response to a fire alarm or other emergency response purpose, giving warning signal by appropriate light and by audible bell, siren or exhaust whistle, audible under normal conditions from a distance not less than 1000 feet, the driver of every other vehicle shall immediately drive the same to a position as near as possible and parallel to the right-hand edge or curb, clear of any intersection of streets or highways, and shall stop and remain in such position unless otherwise directed by a law enforcement or traffic officer until the law enforcement or fire department vehicle, or the vehicle operated,” by the state shall pass. [Emphasis Added].
A driver with headphones in runs a real risk of not being able to hear the emergency vehicle within 1,000 ft under normal auditory conditions, as the headphones would certainly move the condition from the realm of normal to abnormal. It puts a lot of faith in visual clues. Not only is a violation of the above-cited subsection a Class 2 Misdemeanor, it is also negligence per se, so apart from criminal culpability expected from its violation, it can also threaten to create significant civil liability should any injury happen as a result of the driver’s failure to follow the statute’s directions for oncoming emergency personnel.
What if injury does happen as a result? Well, that makes it a Class 1 Misdemeanor. Serious injury or death? That’s a felony.
As is often the case in the law, the short answer is very rarely the complete one. While no law specifically prohibits the use of headphones while driving in North Carolina, their use can substantially interfere with a driver’s ability to comply with already existing traffic laws the violation of which gives way to serious consequences.
Taylor Hastings is an attorney from Chapel Hill, North Carolina; his practice focuses on criminal defense and civil litigation. In 2014, he started Hastings Law & Counsel, PLLC, a law firm that provides legal assistance throughout the triangle in state and federal court. Please visit www.hastingsnclaw.com to learn more or call 919-913-4701 for specific answers to legal issues.