Distracted Walking Can Be Dangerous
January 17, 2012

Distracted Walking Can Be Dangerous

Do you ever wear your headphones on the go, listening to your favorite music on your iPhone or your MP3 player, and unaware to the world around you? Well if you do, then you should read this:

According to a new US study, serious accidents involving pedestrians wearing headphones connected to their personal mobile devices such as iPods, have tripled over the past six years. An increase in the use of headphones while walking in the street has led to the dramatic rise in the number of injuries and deaths, particularly with teenagers, men and young adults.

There is increasing concern about the near trance-like state people seem to enter while using their mobile devices. Psychologists call this “divided attention” or “inattentional blindness” and it has become a focus for road safety campaigners across the country.

The research, published in the Injury Prevention journal, analyzed data from 2004 to 2011 on injuries to pedestrians using headphones. The researchers excluded data on users of mobile phones, including the hands-free sets, and also on cyclists

In compiling the data, they found 116 pedestrians in the US wearing headphones had died or been seriously injured during the study period. The number of pedestrians who had died or were injured jumped from 16 in 2004-05 to 47 in 2010-11.

About 68 percent of the victims were men, and 67 percent were under the age of 30. About one in 10 of all cases happened to people under the age of 18. Eighty-nine percent of the accidents occurred in urban settings, and more than half of the victims -- 55 percent -- were struck by trains.

According to the study, 81 of the 116 accidents -- roughly 70 percent -- resulted in death.

The researchers suggested that the use of headphones may have played a significant role in each of the accidents, as the users could not hear warnings of impending danger. In 29 percent of the cases, an explicit warning -- such a shout, horn or siren -- had been sounded before the accident.

Data for the study was taken from the US National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News archives and a university research database.

“The use of headphones may pose a safety risk to pedestrians, especially in environments with moving vehicles,” said study leader Dr. Richard Lichenstein, of the University of Maryland Hospital for Children in Baltimore.

Previous studies have shown that people wearing headphones or are distracted because they are talking on their mobile phone respond less to external stimuli, such as sounds and traffic when crossing the street. This reduction in attention to external stimuli has been dubbed “iPod oblivion.”

“Although we do not have robust data about this type of accident in the UK, we have heard of cases in which pedestrians have been knocked down while listening to headphones or talking on mobile phones,” Kevin Clinton, the head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, told The Guardian. “If you are using these devices while walking, RoSPA advises that you ensure you are not dangerously distracted and that you remain aware of what is happening around you.”

“Pedestrians and cyclists seem to get lost in a private cocoon when they´re on a mobile in the street, or wearing headphones,” added Andrew Howard, head of road safety at the AA. “Precise figures don´t appear to be available here. There are many close calls. You´ve only got to look around to see it´s on the rise.”


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