Study suggests hazards of wearing headphones outside

Posted Jan. 16, 2012, at 9:01 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — People who wear headphones might want to ditch them while walking outside. A study finds that accidents involving pedestrians wearing the devices have tripled in recent years.

Researchers combed several sources to find incidents in the U.S. of crashes involving pedestrians and vehicles from 2004 to 2011. Searching the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News archives and Westlaw Campus Research, they found 116 cases of death or injury involving pedestrians wearing headphones. Cases in which people were using mobile phones (including hands-free devices) were excluded.

Over the years the number of cases increased, from 16 in 2004 and 2005 to 47 in 2010 and 2011. The victims’ average age was 21 and most (68 percent) were male. The majority (67 percent) were under the age of 30. Most (55 percent) were hit by trains, and 70 percent of the crashes, most of which were in urban areas, were fatal.

In 74 percent of the cases, police or eyewitness reports said the pedestrian had headphones on when hit. And 29 percent of reports made mention or horns or sirens going off before the crash.

The study authors pointed to two likely culprits that may be a factor in what they call “the possible association between headphone use and pedestrian injury”: sensory deprivation and distraction, the latter more specifically called “inattentional blindness,” referring to the use of electronic gadgets and how they decrease attention to things going on around us.

Hearing what’s going on in the environment, they point out, could be more important than visual cues for pedestrians. But the authors add that this study doesn’t show causation or correlation of headphone use and pedestrian risk, and other factors could have been involved in the accidents, such as pedestrians being intoxicated or drivers being at fault.

More comprehensive information on such accidents are needed, the researchers said, to see which groups of people may be most at risk.

The study was published online Monday in the journal Injury Prevention.

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