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Are headphones causing pedestrian deaths?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Headphones linked to pedestrian accidents, deaths

Investigators from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore find pedestrians, especially young males, may be vulnerable to accidents and death because they’re distracted by headphones and can’t hear horns that are usually blown by cars, trains and trucks.

According to the researchers, in three-quarters of cases, trains, cars and trucks are sounding their horns, but headphones prevent pedestrians from hearing them – and in most cases, the victims are young men.

Lead author Richard Lichenstein, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Unfortunately as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases.”’’

Lichenstein adds he sees more teens distracted with headphones in their ears – a risk the public may not be focused on, compared to awareness of the dangers of texting and using cell-phones in automobiles.

For the study, researchers looked at case reports of pedestrian accidents and fatalities from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News Archives, and Westlaw Campus Research databases for reports published between 2004 and 2011, finding 116 accidents with documented headphone use.

The research, published in Injury Prevention, revealed 70 percent of the victims died, more than two-thirds were male and also under the age of 30.

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In twenty-nine percent of the cases, a horn was sounded before the accident, half of which involved trains.

The study authors say the finding doesn’t prove headphones lead to deaths and mishaps, especially for young men, but the increase in accidents corresponds with rising use of headphones and other auditory technology.

Lichenstein was prompted to do the study after a local teen wearing headphones was tragically killed by an oncoming train.

“As a pediatric emergency physician and someone interested in safety and prevention I saw this as an opportunity to -- at minimum -- alert parents of teens and young adults of the potential risk of wearing headphones where moving vehicles are present,” he says.

He explains pedestrian distraction caused by headphones is called “inattentional blindness”, which may be one of the reasons for deaths and mishaps found in the study. Sensory deprivation, combined with the distraction of headphones zaps the brain’s mental resources, making users oblivious to the warning of horns from oncoming trains or cars.

Lichenstein R, Smith D, Ambrose J, Moody L. “Headphone use and pedestrian injury and death in the United States: 2004-2011.” Injury Prevention. Published online January 17, 2012. doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2011-040161

Image credit: Morguefile