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18-01-2012 | Emergency medicine | Article

Headphone use puts pedestrians at risk for serious injury


Free abstract

MedWire News: The number of pedestrians seriously injured or killed while wearing headphones for a handheld device, such as an MP3 player, has trebled in the last 6 years, US study data show.

Those affected are predominantly young men, report Richard Lichenstein (University of Maryland Hospital for Children, Baltimore) and colleagues in Injury Prevention.

"According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 4000-5000 pedestrian deaths result from vehicle crashes every year, constituting 10-12% of total traffic fatalities," say the researchers.

In addition, approximately 50 pedestrian deaths are caused by trains each year.

Devices such as MP3 players and cell phones, which are commonly used with headphones, may be risk factors in pedestrian injuries and fatalities near roadways and railways because they diminish the user's ability to appreciate environmental cues, the authors suggest.

To investigate the specific role of headphone use in the injury and death of pedestrians, Lichenstein and team searched the US National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News Archives, and Westlaw Campus Research databases for reports of crashes involving trains or motor vehicles, published between 2004 and 2011.

They identified 116 reports of death or injury of pedestrians wearing headphones, mainly via the Google News Archives (88%). The number of cases increased threefold over the study period, from 16 reports in 2004-2005 to 47 in 2010-2011.

The majority of victims were male (68%) and under the age of 30 years (67%). The median age was 21 years.

Eighty-one (70%) of the 116 collisions were fatal and around three-quarters (74%) of reports stated that the victim was wearing headphones at the time of the crash. The remainder consisted of cases where the police report indicated that the victim may have been wearing headphones, or where headphones were found on or near the victim's body but not covering his/her ears.

The researchers found that 29% of reports specifically mentioned horns or sirens being sounded before the victim was hit.

Interestingly, more cases involved trains than cars (55 vs 45%), but the researchers speculate that this may be at least partly explained by media bias, as media reports have been shown to emphasize abnormal events with severe outcomes.

Lichenstein and co-authors say that distraction and sensory deprivation, whereby the wearer is unable to hear any external sounds, probably contribute to the association between headphone use and pedestrian injury.

"Distraction caused by the use of electronic devices has been coined inattentional blindness, essentially a divided cognitive workload that reduces mental resource allocation, or attention, to outside stimuli," they write.

This combines with "environmental isolation," a type of auditory deprivation where the headphone user is unable to hear sounds emanating from the local surroundings, to put pedestrians using headphones at risk for serious injury or death, they add.

The researchers accept that the study's reliance on media reports is a major limitation. Therefore "further research is needed to determine if and how headphone use compromises pedestrian safety," they conclude.

By Laura Cowen

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