When iPods Turn Deadly

There are some dangerous jobs out there: ice road trucker, lumberjack, Alaskan crab fisherman. And now it’s time to add music lover.

Recent research published by Injury Prevention has verified what common sense has long suggested: Using headphones connected to a portable music player while being a pedestrian can be hazardous to your health, even fatal.

The study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore looked at the safety risks associated with headphone use by pedestrians and discovered 116 published reports of death or injury of pedestrians wearing headphones between 2004 and 2011. The majority of victims were male (68%) and under the age of 30 (67%). The majority of vehicles involved in the crashes were trains (55%). Most of the accidents (89%) occurred in urban counties.  In about a third of the cases the reports specifically mentioned horns or sirens being sounded prior to the victim being hit. The majority of incidents have occurred since 2008.  Nearly three-quarters of the reported injuries were fatal.

The study’s lead author, Richard Lichenstein, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, found that injuries to pedestrians wearing headphones have tripled in six years. He cautioned that the results involve only published reports and do not establish causality between headphone wearing and accidents. It is likely that most non-serious accidents involving headphones do not receive press attention. “We think this is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

According to Lichenstein, most of the accidents reported were due to the victim being distracted by their devices or being unable to hear the sounds of the warning systems, or both. He describes headphone wearing as a form of sensory deprivation.

“Everybody is aware of the risk of cellphones and texting in automobiles, but I see more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears,” said Lichenstein. “Unfortunately, as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking of warning sounds increases.”

Ed. Note: The history of technology is to some extent the story of people being maimed and killed by the machines and chemicals we create.

One of the primary reasons for our senses is to keep us from being food. While that is not a concern for most city dwellers these days,  our senses still serve to protect us from motorized technologies that have the potential to seriously disrupt our physical equilibrium. 

Obviously, self-imposed sensory deprivation when in the presence or moving vehicles, or while driving them, is at the top of the list of digital literacy DON’TS. It is something children should learn right along with don’t touch a hot stove, don’t run with scissors and don’t take a bath with a toaster.

Listening to tunes while crossing railroad tracks should be recognized as a clear and present danger, but it is clear from the study that even that basic Literacy 2.0 skill is lost on some people.

Fortunately, death by iPod is relatively rare and most lapses in digital literacy are not fatal. But the study should serve as a reminder that there are potential dangers lurking in even the most innocuous of our inventions when they are used improperly or in the wrong context. (Remember the two airline pilots who lost their jobs because they overflew their destination while playing videogames on their laptops?)

A writer for the Wall Street Journal Health Blog recently posted about seeing a woman walking down the street while dollar bills were falling from her purse. A few people tried to call out to her to let her know what was happening, but she couldn’t hear them because she was wearing headphones with the music cranked.

It all falls under the heading of respect your technology and use it appropriately. I won’t even mention the story in the news last week about the guy who was operating an industrial chipper to shred tree limbs and failed to follow proper safety procedures. It didn’t mention if he was wearing headphones before the accident.



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