January 16th, 2012
06:31 PM ET
Crossing a busy street while blasting music into your headphones doesn’t exactly enhance your awareness.
The number of serious injuries and deaths occurring to pedestrians who were walking with headphones has tripled in seven years in the United States, according to a report published in Injury Prevention.
Dr. Richard Lichenstein and co-authors from the University of Maryland School of Medicine reported 116 crashes involving pedestrians who were wearing headphones between 2004 and 2011. Eighty-one of them resulted in deaths. It started with 16 cases between 2004 and 2005 and rose to 47 by 2010 and 2011.
Half of the victims were struck by trains; the other half by cars, buses, trucks, tractor trailers or bicycles. Using headphones while walking isn’t really a new phenomenon – considering people used to walk around with portable audio cassette players and compact disc players.
The difference is that our electronic gadgets are more prevalent and much more portable than the age of the Walkman, said Lichenstein, director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine Research at the University of Maryland. A Pew study found that about 75% of teens reported using an MP3 player in 2008.
“You’d be hard-pressed not to look out the window and see people walking around with headphones,” he said. “People probably had it with growing up - not to the extent that we see now.”
They are likely to have inattentional blindness (distraction) and sensory deprivation, where people can't hear warning sounds. On Friday, a pedestrian was struck by a train as he crossed the streetcar tracks while wearing headphones, according to a German newspaper. Although the train sounded the warning horns, the pedestrian was not able to hear the warning horn and was later hospitalized.
Lichenstein and the group gathered the injury and death data from National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News archives and Westlaw Campus Research databases. They used a grading system to assess whether the evidence that the victim had been wearing headphones at the time of the incident was strong.
The median age of the victims was 21 years old and the majority (68%) were male.
The cases the study authors counted is “the tip of the iceberg,” Lichenstein said as injuries are likely to go unreported.
The idea for this study came because Lichenstein, who chairs the state’s child fatality review team, had heard of several incidents in Baltimore of serious injuries and even deaths of people wearing headphones.
“We acknowledge that there are limitations to the study,” he said. “We did the best we can, given the fact that there’s no way to do an observational study of this type.”
The authors wrote: “Since this is a retrospective case series, neither causation nor correlation can be established between headphone use and pedestrian risk.” It’s also impossible to decipher whether the reason why some people were struck by trains and cars were due to suicidal intentions, substance abuse, mental illness rather than distraction caused by headphone use.
But the injuries and deaths of distracted pedestrians have caught the attention of lawmakers around the country. One Chicago lawmaker proposed banning all cell phone use for cyclists. A New York bill was proposed last year that would’ve banned cell phone or MP3 usage while crossing the street, according to the New York Times.
That’s not the “most efficient or wisest regulation we should have,” said Lichenstein. “We want people to be thoughtful and conscious. Everyone loves their tunes and enjoying themselves. When they’re walking, talking or listening to music, at least be cognizant of the fact it’s a big world out there. You may not be paying attention and people may not be paying attention to you.”
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