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Headphone-Wearing Pedestrians at Risk of Serious Accidents, Study Shows

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Walking with style (pedestrian wearing headphones)A recent study shows that distracted walking can be as dangerous as distracted driving, and that the number of headphone-wearing walkers who were seriously injured or killed near roadways and railroad tracks has tripled in six years.

The study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, examined pedestrian accident information from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google news archives, and the Westlaw Campus Research database from Jan. 1, 2004 to June 1, 2011, reports Trista Kelley for Bloomberg Businessweek. The researchers found that 116 headphone-wearing pedestrians had been seriously injured or killed in accidents involving vehicles.

As Julie Rovner writes for

One thing that was clear from the data is that the majority of pedestrians struck are male (68 percent) and under age 30 (67 percent). More than half the accidents involved a train, and in nearly a third (29 percent), a horn or other warning was sounded before the crash occurred.

The researchers say there are two problems that can cause people wearing headphones to be, well, oblivious to potential danger around them.

One is a phenomenon called inattentional blindness. The brain is too busy operating or listening to an iPod or MP3 player to pay attention to the potential danger caused by oncoming traffic.

The other is called environmental isolation. The sounds coming through the headphones simply overpower those coming from the street.

“You’re literally plugging out the warnings that can save your life,” said lead author Richard Lichenstein, a pediatric emergency room doctor at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.

The researchers are unable to say conclusively whether pedestrian accident victims might have had mental problems or whether drivers might have been at fault, because the data they analyzed came from media reports. Lichenstein said that while the data might not be the best science, “it’s a great way to start the dialogue.” He said that although parents know about the importance of having their children wear bicycle helmets or seat belts, “we don’t think of the ramifications when you give them their first MP3 player or iPod.”

Image by kuma chan, used under its Creative Commons license.


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