Death by headphones

Death by headphones

January 22nd, 2012 in Opinion Times

Talking a stroll with Lady Gaga, Jay-Z or Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" coursing through your headphones can be hazardous to your health -- so dangerous, in fact, that it could kill you. Don't believe it? Here's proof: The number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones has tripled since 2004, according to a new study.

Everyone is, or should be, familiar with the term "distracted driving." That describes the always dangerous and sometimes deadly outcomes associated with the use of electronic devices while behind the wheel. The use of headphones by those on foot -- call it "distracted walking" -- can be similarly dangerous, though the hazard is more limited in scope.

Distracted drivers can bring harm to themselves, to those in a vehicle with them and to those who must share the road with them. A pedestrian in headphones is unlikely to bring harm to anyone other than himself. That's no reason to ignore the possible perils related to headphone use by pedestrians.

The risks are real, and growing. Maryland researchers report that the number of walkers killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones rose from 16 in 2004 to 47 last year. The number is small, of course, but still strongly suggests walking (or riding a bike or jogging) with ears covered and music blasting is dangerous. No wonder.

New headphones are increasingly effective at reducing outside noises. They allow a user to hear what's playing through the earphones while completely tuning out the sounds around them. Researchers put it in more formal terms. "Two phenomena are likely contributors to the ... association between headphone use and pedestrian injury: distraction and sensory deprivation."

The result is sadly predictable. Like those who use cell phones while walking, those with headphones seem more likely to engage in "risky behavior" while afoot. They hear little or nothing. The result is a growing number of pedestrians hit by trains and vehicles. In about a third of those cases, researchers say, horns or sirens were sounded prior to the pedestrian being hit. Walkers using headphones clearly have an attention deficit that can and does lead to disastrous consequences.

The headphone-accident phenomenon, researchers report, is more widespread among those under 30, those who reside in urban areas and males. It is not limited to those groups, though. Headphone use among all demographic groups and in all areas is on the rise. Even causal observation here and elsewhere proves that.

Pedestrians who insist on using headphones in places where individuals and traffic intersect should carefully balance their desire to hear music and to shut out the outside world with safety concerns. Failure to do so could have tragic consequences.