Can You Safely Walk and Listen to Music at the Same Time?

Can You Safely Walk and Listen to Music at the Same Time?

When walking on busy streets or anywhere near railroad tracks, take out those headphones and pay attention. Your life may depend on it.

Inattention blindness, it turns out, affects more than distracted drivers. According to new research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, the number of pedestrians struck and seriously injured by cars or trains while wearing headphones has skyrocketed in recent years. Teenagers and young men especially are at risk of serious injury by walking while wearing headphones.

"Whenever you're running or walking around [while] listening to music, you're allocating some of your brain to listen to that music," said lead author Richard Lichenstein, M.D., in a video about the study results. "You really can't do both of those things at 100 percent."

Pedestrians listening to music may be unable to hear a honking car or a train’s horn, putting them in danger. Serious injuries to pedestrians wearing headphones have tripled since 2004, and three-quarters of these cases result in fatalities. In many cases, the pedestrians cannot hear train or car horns.

"Everybody is aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles, but I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears," said Lichenstein, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the director of pediatric emergency medicine research 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."

Inattention Blindness Affects Pedestrians, Too

Researchers reviewed 116 accident cases from 2004 to 2011 in which injured pedestrians were documented to be using headphones. Seventy percent of these accidents resulted in the pedestrian’s death. The majority of victims were male (68 percent) and under the age of 30 (67 percent). Fifty-five percent of the moving vehicles involved in the accidents were trains, and nearly a third (29 percent) of the vehicles reported sounding some type of warning horn prior to the crash.

Lichenstein and colleagues noted two likely phenomena associated with these injuries and deaths: distraction and sensory deprivation. The distraction caused by the use of electronic devices has been coined "inattentional blindness," in which multiple stimuli divide the brain's mental resource allocation. In cases of headphone-wearing pedestrian collisions with vehicles, the distraction is intensified by sensory deprivation, in which the pedestrian's ability to hear a train or car warning signal is masked by the sounds produced by the portable electronic device and headphones.

The increased incidence of accidents over the years corresponds to documented rising popularity of auditory technologies with headphones, researchers added.

This study examined retrospective case reports 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 of pedestrian injuries or fatalities from crashes involving trains or motor vehicles. The research is published online in the journal Injury Prevention.

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