Jan. 17, 2012 -- The dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone may be in the news, but walking while wearing headphones can also be deadly.
A new study shows that in the last six years, serious injuries and deaths have tripled among pedestrians struck by a car or train while wearing headphones connected to an iPod or other handheld device.
Between 2004 and 2011, 116 injuries among pedestrians wearing headphones were reported in the U.S., including 81 deaths. The majority of crashes were among young people in urban areas.
Researchers say the number of injuries is on the rise along with the popularity of iPods and other MP3 devices. In 2004-2005, the number of injuries reported was 16, and by 2010-2011, the number had risen to 47.
Pedestrian Injuries Linked to Headphone Use
In the study, researchers analyzed information from national databases and the media for reports of pedestrian injuries or deaths from crashes involving trains or motor vehicles between 2004 and 2011. Cases involving cell phones, including hands-free devices, were not included.
A total of 116 injuries were reported, and 70% resulted in death. More than two-thirds of the victims were male (68%) and under the age of 30 (67%).
More than half of the crashes involved trains (55%), and 89% of the accidents occurred in urban areas.
In about three out of four cases, eyewitnesses reported the victim was wearing headphones. In the remaining cases, there was evidence in the report that suggested the victim may have been wearing headphones or headphones were found in the victim’s ears or at the scene.
Why Headphones May Be Dangerous
Researchers say there are two likely explanations for the link between headphone use and pedestrian injury: distraction and environmental isolation.
Distraction caused by the use of electronic devices is known as “inattentional blindness.” It involves the distraction of interpreting sound as well as the distraction needed to operate the device.
Inattentional blindness has already been implicated as an important emerging cause of motor vehicle accidents. Now studies like this one are also linking it to pedestrian injuries.
Researchers say the second factor, a lack of attention to what’s happening around you, called environmental isolation, may pose even bigger risks among pedestrians.
“The actual sensory deprivation that results from using headphones with electronic devices may be a unique problem in pedestrian incidents, where auditory cues can be more important than visual ones,” researcher Richard Lichenstein, of the University of Maryland, and colleagues write in Injury Prevention.
In fact, 29% of the reports in this study specifically mentioned that horns or sirens were sounded before the individual was hit.
The study does not establish a cause/effect relationship between headphone use and pedestrian injury or death. The researchers note that numbers of “near miss” events are not available. Also, other possible factors such as substance use, suicidal behavior, and mental illness, were also not known.