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Hastings Blawg

Is it legal to wear headphones while driving in North Carolina?

Taylor Hastings

Yes. Sort of. 

Though delayed from its original release date in October 2016, Apple still advertises its much anticipated "Airpod" headphones for release before the end of 2016. The headphones are wireless and boast speakerphone capability in its signature 'pod' design with competitive sound quality and comfortability. 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.

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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 carry serious consequences.

The Why of a Crime

Taylor Hastings


It’s not always easy to pinpoint what drives America’s fascination with true crime mysteries. Serial’s deep dive into the circumstances surrounding the death of Hae Min Lee only ignited this fascination, as millions downloaded Sarah Koenig’s podcast, and its listeners flocked to Reddit to bravely discuss their theories of how it all went down on a winter night in the outskirts of Baltimore on January 13, 1999. A jury convicted her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who has been in the state’s custody since law enforcement arrested him on February 28, 1999, but an appellate judge granted him a new trial in 2016 because his lawyer ineffectively assisted him during his trial. A kid, at 17, was a bright student with college acceptance letters rolling in already. There’s no doubt the intrigue begins with the difficulty many have in answering – why? Why would he kill her?

Legally speaking, motive is not an element of murder. The state bears the burden of proving each element of the charged criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. It follows, then, that the state is under no obligation to answer that question for you. It does not have to matter. It, of course, helps anyone understand a particular defendant’s actions, but the state must only prove the defendant did it on purpose beyond a reasonable doubt. The reason for this is not always obvious but it makes sense after considering the following.

Video footage shows a man pull a firearm out of his pants. His eyes lock onto his target. He aims, fires, and hits the person whom instantly dies. All of that is caught on tape. While it is clear the man purposefully shot and killed the intended target, the state might never ascertain his introspective thoughts as to why he killed this person. It nonetheless has substantial evidence showing the requisite level of intent for the crime through his deliberate actions. Simply, we often will never truly know why a crime takes place. Even in the rare occasion the defendant testifies or offers a confession that provides a rationale, the true reason is probably not disclosed and the one given is marred with inherent credibility issues the vast extent of which are beyond the scope of this post.


But that’s the thing. It’s the why that draws everyone in. It’s the why that gives it the folklore, as many attempt to extrapolate from their own experience to offer an explanation for events that will forever remain a mystery as to why.

Enter: Germanton, North Carolina in 1929. The mountains of North Carolina, with its tradition for folk and storytelling, is an apt home to its own notorious “familicide,” and the reason for its commission continues to elude all those involved.

On December 25, 1929, Charles Lawson sent his eldest son, who was 16, to go on an errand in the afternoon. While his son was away, Lawson proceeded to murder his wife and other six children, one of whom was only 4-months old. After shooting them with a shotgun, he bludgeoned them to ensure their demise, and then took care to neatly lay them to rest in a tobacco farm with their arms crossed and rocks under their heads as pillows. Hours later, Lawson shot himself in the woods behind his house. Nobody truly knows why he performed these acts; no one knows why he spared his eldest son. Many speculate that a former head injury unhinged primal desires he could not suppress; others suggest he impregnated one of his daughters and Lawson feared his wife and children would realize their impropriety. The site became a tourist attraction, musicians composed songs about the events, and family members wrote books attempting to explain what happened. Of course, none are conclusive – nor will they ever be.

As 2016 nears its end, the tragic events that unfolded on Christmas Day in 1929 remain in the collective culture of that North Carolina community. It’s the why that keeps it alive. It’s the why that feeds America’s true crime addiction. It’s the question, however, that will forever remain unanswered.