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Distracted pedestrians? Accidents on rise for headphone-wearers

January 19, 2012 |  3:49 pm

Listening to music with earphones.

Much attention has been paid to the dangers of distracted driving: Researchers have studied the effects of driving while texting or talking on a phone, and many states now regulate the use of cellphones by drivers.

But what about distracted walking?

In a study published this week in the online journal Injury Prevention, researchers examined six years of reports and found that the number of headphone-wearing pedestrians killed or injured by moving vehicles has tripled in the U.S. since 2004 and 2005. Sixteen people were injured or killed in that two-year period; 47 people were injured or killed in 2010 2011, they found.

“We knew that drivers can be distracted,” Dr. Richard Lichenstein, the study’s lead author, said in a phone interview from Maryland.  But pedestrians wearing headphones can be distracted too, he said, and risk getting hit by cars or buses or even trains.

Lichenstein, director of pediatric emergency medicine research at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said he decided to study the topic after reading headline after headline about pedestrians being killed while wearing headphones.

Researchers analyzed incidents reported in the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News Archives and the Westlaw Campus Research Database. They identified the incidents by combing the reports and articles using words such as “headphones,” “killed,” “injured,” “iPod” and several other variations.

Overall, the team identified 116 cases from 2004 through 2011 in which pedestrians were injured or killed by moving vehicles.  Of the victims, 68% were male, and 67% were younger than 30.

Further, 59% of the accidents occurred in large metropolitan areas with populations larger than 1 million. And 55% of the victims were struck by a train.

The ages of pedestrians killed “mimic the demographic of those that use MP3 players and iPods,” Lichenstein said.  

The study did have limitations, the researchers noted.

“First, it relies on media reporting, which likely over-publishes tragic events but vastly under-publishes non-fatal cases,” they wrote in the article. "Moreover, there is no method of collecting information about "near misses."

Another major limitation involves the study's inability to establish correlation, much less causation, between headphone use and the risk to pedestrians.

“To make any sort of causality statement, we’d need to conduct a large-scale observational study,” Lichenstein said.

Suicidal intentions, substance abuse, mental illness and other factors may also play roles in some of the pedestrian injuries and fatalities, he said.

The study shouldn't be used to prompt legislative action, Lichenstein said, but at the very least, it should be used as an educational tool. 

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Photo: A man listens to a portable music player through earphones Credit: Ian Waldie/Getty Images   

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