Cellphone and loud music are a distraction when we’re driving, that’s common knowledge at this point. But there are more people on the road than just drivers, and these pedestrians and cyclists are also prone to distracting gadgets.
This point is reinforced by a new study published in The Journal of Injury Prevention. Researchers from the University of Maryland examined pedestrian-car accident profiles over the last six years, and found that injury rates tripled for people wearing headphones. This alarmed researchers, who noted that it is a limited study but also saw the data as cause for further investigation.
Richard Lichenstein, M.D. was the lead author of the study, and put it this way: “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.”
Dr. Lichenstein makes a good point, though it’s based on anecdotal evidence. Consider all of the times you’ve seen a young person bumping around the sidewalk or crossing an intersection while looking at a phone and listening to headphones. Lichenstein’s study supports his eye-ball test. Of the 116 reported deaths or injuries that he tracked, the majority of victims were male and younger than 30. Most strikingly, 74 percent of the cases stated that the victim was wearing headphones at the time of the crash.
The primary flaw of the relatively small study was that the source of most of the information came from media reports, which is not the most reliable source. That being the case, researchers were careful not to put too much stock in the specifics of the data, instead presenting the study as a means of highlighting the issue of pedestrian distraction itself.
Just like driving safety, children are taught how to move safely around the streets from a young age. What we learn to look both ways before crossing the street and to always use our ears to inform us of what’s going on around us. More simply, to use our eyes and ears at all times. But handheld devices–and especially devices that engage eyes and ears with headphones-can dramatically impair those senses.
Comparisons have been drawn between distracted and drunk driving. Perhaps an appropriate parallel to distracted walking is public intoxication. But unlike drunk driving, not since prohibition has public intoxication been a hot button national issue. It’s simply hard envision a person walking around on his or her phone ever being viewed as a public evil like distracted driving. That’s because young people like those the study found were more likely to be involved in a headphones-related accident don’t use cellphones as a communication device. It’s a connection to the virtual self where we store information, entertainment and of course our entire social network. But no matter how connected to our devices we become, our bodies stay in the here and now of the physical world, where crosswalks, cars and unexpected dangers remain.
The solution may be as simple as parents and teachers integrating an awareness of just how distracting mp3 players and cell phone applications can be into the routine lessons about looking both ways. As the researches pointed out, a thorough investigation into the dangers that these devices can pose to pedestrians can help us all understand what needs to be done.