Those who wear headphones as they walk to school or work may want to unplug a bit as a new study shows serious injuries to headphone-wearing pedestrians have more than tripled over the past six years.
In many of the cases, the cars or trains are sounding horns that the pedestrians cannot hear, leading to fatalities in almost 75 percent of the cases, according to researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
“Everybody is aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles,” said Dr. Richard Lichenstein, lead author and professor, in a news release. “But I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears. Unfortunately as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases.”
Dr. Lichenstein and his colleagues studied retrospective case reports from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, Google News Archives, and Westlaw Campus Research databases for reports published from 2004 to 2011 of pedestrians injured or killed from train or motor vehicle crashes. Cases involving headphone use were extracted and summarized.
Researchers reviewed 116 accident cases from this time period in which injured pedestrians were documented to be using headphones. Deaths occurred in 70 percent of the 116 accidents. More than two-thirds of victims were under the age of 30 (about 67 percent) and male (68 percent).
More than half of the moving vehicles involved in the accidents were trains (55 percent), and 29 percent of those vehicles reported sounding a warning horn prior to the crash. The increased number of pedestrian accidents closely corresponds to documented rise in popularity of auditory technologies with headphones.
Researchers noted two likely phenomena linked to these injuries and deaths: sensory deprivation and distraction. The distraction caused by using electronic devices has been coined “inattentional blindness,” because multiple stimuli divide the brain’s mental resource allocation.
In these cases of vehicles colliding with pedestrians wearing headphones, the distraction is intensified by sensory deprivation because the person‘s ability to hear a train or car warning signal is masked by the music or sounds coming through the headphones.
The study was started after reviewing a tragic death where a local teen died crossing railroad tracks. The teen was wearing headphones and did not avoid the oncoming train despite warning alarms. Further research revealed other cases throughout the country.
“As a pediatric emergency physician and someone interested in safety and prevention I saw this as an opportunity to — at a minimum — alert parents of teens and young adults of the potential risk of wearing headphones where moving vehicles are present,” Lichenstein said.
“This research is a wonderful example of taking what our physicians see every day in the hospital and applying a broader scientific view to uncover a troubling societal problem that needs greater awareness,” said Dr. E. Albert Reece, vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland and dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
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