Headphones can put pedestrians in danger. Image: Flickr / talatlas / CC-BY

Roads can be dangerous for individuals who are hearing-impaired because auditory signals often indicate danger. A new study has found that many people are choosing to put themselves in similar danger by wearing headphones turned up too loud.

The Injury Prevention study

The online journal Injury Prevention published a study by the University of Maryland Hospital for Children, among others. The study collated reports of pedestrians who had been injured while wearing headphones. In the 2004-2005 year, there were 16 of these injuries. In the 2010-2011 year, there were at least 47. The study covered 116 injuries in the last few years in total, gathered from news alerts, the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, United States Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Westlaw system.

The danger of headphones

Of the 116 injuries covered in the published study, nearly 90 percent of the cases were in urban areas, and the majority were of individuals 30 years or younger. People wearing headphones turned up loud do not hear sirens, alarms or other auditory signals that indicate danger. Many of the injured people also were walking in dangerous areas to start with, such as on train tracks or in high-traffic areas.

In-attentional blindness contributes

The study also cites “in-attentional blindness” as a major contributing factor of many of the cited accidents. This is when the brain is actively engaged on something else, such as reading e-mails or engaging in social networks via a smartphone, instead of paying attention to one’s surroundings. Though the person may hear or see the signals of danger, the brain may not process them immediately or fully, which leads to much slower reaction times.

Limits of the study

The study authors admit that this one small study does not provide a large amount of evidence. News media tend to vastly under-report the number of non-fatal accidents involving pedestrians, and because the study cases were pulled from reported incidents, the number of actual incidents is likely much higher. Despite this, the takeaway of the study for most individuals is the same: Even when you are a pedestrian, turning down the volume on your headphones and paying attention can save your life.


Headphone use and pedestrian injury and death in the United States 2004-2011 (PDF)

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