Death by Headphones?


Written by Lloyd Alter

A few years back I wrote about The Dangers of iPods on Cyclists and Pedestrians illustrated with an ad from an Australian ad campaign “to raise awareness of the fact that the number of teenagers dying as a result of listening to iPods whilst they cross the road is beginning to reach “epidemic proportions”. Now a new study led by Dr Richard Lichenstein of the University of Maryland Hospital for Children finds that, indeed, there has been a significant increase in the number of headphone-wearing pedestrians killed, tripling in the last six years.

The study, PDF here and abstract here, notes that of the 116 cases in the study, 34 specifically noted that horns or sirens were sounded before the victim was struck, which I think raises some interesting points. Almost all of the articles picking up on this study are blaming the victims, picking up on the line in the study that says:

“Sensory deprivation that results from using headphones with electronic devices may be a unique problem in pedestrian incidents, where auditory cues can be more important than visual ones.”

Headphone use and pedestrian injury and death in the United States: 2004- 2011/Screen capture

Blaming the victim

Dr. Lichenstein says:

As a pediatric emergency physician and someone interested in safety and prevention I saw this as an opportunity to — at minimum — alert parents of teens and young adults of the potential risk of wearing headphones where moving vehicles are present.

I have been looking at the coverage of this story, and reading the comments. The headlines run the gamut:
Pedestrians wearing headphones at risk
Distracted Pedestrians: Technology Produces New Deadly Trend
Why headphones are hazardous to your health

So do the comments. My favourite :

Why are there even pedestrians anyway? I drive everywhere I go and I do NOT walk around in areas where I can be hit by a car unless absolutely unavoidable.

In every single article I read, there was not a single note or comment pointing out that these people are being hit and killed by cars. The headphones don’t kill people, cars are killing people. The study doesn’t say who had who had right of way, it simply points out that the number of pedestrians killed while wearing headphones has increased. Yet everyone is blaming the victim for wearing headphones.

from study/Screen capture

There is another point to be gleaned from this table in the study. While the number of people getting killed by cars while wearing headphones had tripled in six years, the actual number of people wearing MP3 players has quadrupled. So in fact, the rate at which pedestrians wearing headphones are being killed is actually going down.

The authors of the study list a number of limitations, including that “since this is a retrospective case series, neither causation nor correlation can be established between headphone use and pedestrian risk.” Another one might be the fact that:

it relies on media reporting, which likely over-publishes tragic events but vastly under-publishes non-fatal cases. …… Our capture of the cases in this study required headphones to be mentioned, information that may or may not be available to reporters at the scene.

I would suggest that there might be a media bias in the reporting, just as there is with bicycle helmets; a cyclist could be hit at full speed by a transport truck, where the use of a helmet is completely irrelevant, but you can bank on it that the newspaper article will say “the cyclist was not wearing a helmet.” Headphone use for pedestrians has been getting a lot more attention (see last year’s New York Times article States’ Lawmakers Turn Attention to the Dangers of Distracted Pedestrians), so I have no doubt that if someone is killed by a 4,000 pound car going through a red light at high speed, the new article will mention that the victim was wearing headphones.

I run every day, listening to TreeHugger Radio and Nora Young on my iPhone. I also have really lousy hearing. I cross streets when I have right of way. If I get hit, it’s probably not my fault, even if I am wearing headphones. I am really tired of everyone blaming the victim, once again.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.


Related Stories:

3 Reasons Congress Shouldn’t Abandon Cyclists and Pedestrians

Young People Buying Tech Instead of Cars

City Seeks to Outlaw Bicyclists and Pedestrians


Photo: New South Wales Police/Promo image


Kevin D.
Kevin D.1 years ago

I sent your articles links to all my contacts and they all adore it including insurance rates

Raymen D.
Past Member 3 years ago

I'm certainly very happy to read this blog site posts which carries plenty of helpful data, thanks for providing such information.ear buds

Cinthya Mishell H.

hey! The people who died,died cause they dont pay attention when they cross the street,but pedetrians are not the cause. I know alot of children/teens (about 700) WALK with HEADPHONES ON and they dont get killed cause they pay attention to see if there are cars passing, theres a side walk,if they get killed on would be cause of the BAD DRIVER :)
Also japanese design head phones!

i'm a mature 16year old girl and this is my opinion. -from what i understand ....

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener6 years ago


Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe6 years ago

What could be really scary is one person on foot with headphones on and someone else in a car talking on a cell phone. Neither one is paying attention. Now, that is an accident waiting to happen.

Mandy Harker
Mandy H6 years ago

I'm always, always listening to my iPod when out and I've never even come close to being hit...why? Because I look before crossing the road! For gods sakes if someone who is chronically ill and has three(recent) suicide attempts on the record can work out to look EVERY way before crossing the road or stepping off the tram ect.
It's really not that hard and hay it can save you from months of pain in the hospital or death.

Dana Hershkowitz
Dana Hershkowitz6 years ago

Perhaps the rise in people being hit while wearing headphones is due to the fact that more people wear headphones? I do a lot of walking, usually with my headphones on but never at such an insane volume where I could not hear a horn blaring at me.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

I don't think the idea is to 'blame the victim'. I think the goal is to alert people of the danger of not paying attention to what they are doing because they have to be plug-in 24/7.

Gillian Dunn
Gillian Dunn6 years ago

Some people are just too careless when it comes to tuning out traffic via headphones. I've been guilty of it myself a few times, and its a stupid thing to do - you are asking for bad results. I can't sympathize with people who are so irresponsible. It's not that difficult.

Magdalen B.
Magdalen B6 years ago

If you cross the road without looking and listening you are putting yourself in danger.

We teach tinies how to cross the road safely then, as soon as they are old enough, they deafen themselves to the sounds of approaching traffic. This is contributory negligence I think.