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Caution, NPR Listeners: Reported Injuries While Walking With Headphones Triple

Please forgive this preaching, but I think I speak for all my WBUR colleagues when I say: We love our listeners and do not want our podcasts and mobile apps to hurt you. So please pay attention — and that is the point, paying attention! — to a new study that finds that reports of serious injuries in pedestrians wearing headphones have tripled in the last several years.

The victims tended to be in urban areas, under 30 and male, and about half were struck by trains. The authors of the paper in the journal "Injury Prevention" — titled "Headphone use and pedestrian injury and death in the United States: 2004-2011 — mined their data from injury databases and even Google, and came up with a total of 116 vehicle accidents, 70% of them fatal.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]My speculation is that, say, an On Point segment on physics might be especially perilous.[/module]

They found that in three-quarters of the cases, witnesses reported that the victims were wearing headphones, and in about one-quarter, they said a horn or other warning had sounded before the collision.

From the press release:

"The authors say that distraction and sensory deprivation, whereby the wearer is unable to hear any external sounds, are the most likely causes. Distraction caused by the use of electronic devices has been coined ‘inattentional blindness,’ which essentially lowers the resources the brain devotes to external stimuli, they write.

The risks posed by the use of these devices by drivers are well documented,” they write. “But little is known about the association between headphone use and pedestrian injury.

The theory behind inattentional blindness is that your brain has only finite attention resources, and the more you pay attention to one thing — say, a cellphone conversation — the less it can devote to something else — say, watching out for cars and trains. My speculation is that listening to something that's intellectually vigorous — say, an "On Point" segment on physics — takes up more attention than, say, soft rock, and could be especially perilous.

So please, watch out! Here's a full NPR report on the study; it includes an author's comment that though the methodology of the study is imperfect, it seemed important to start a discussion about the dangers of listening while we walk. Hear hear...

This program aired on January 18, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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