Dear Media Lemmings: Headphones Don’t Kill People, Drivers Do

There’s a University of Maryland study making the rounds today that links pedestrian fatalities with the wearing of headphones — a three-fold increase over the last seven years. Judging from the breathless headlines, the causation is clear. “Study Shows Sharp Rise in Accidents Involving Tuned-Out Pedestrians,” reads the Chicago Tribune. “Fatal Distraction,” says MSNBC. “Music to Die For,” sneers the Post.

Jason King was in a Madison Avenue crosswalk when a dump truck driver backed into him and dragged him 30 feet. King's death prompted then-Senator Carl Kruger to take action -- not for tougher penalties for deadly driving, but for ## ban on listening to music while walking##. Photo: ##

But a closer look reveals some major caveats. First, the study relied on notoriously unreliable media reports to come up with 116 cases, between 2004 and 2011, in which pedestrians were killed or injured while wearing headphones (total U.S. pedestrian deaths during those years numbered in the tens of thousands). The majority of victims cited in the study were struck by trains, not cars, which as much as anything could call into question the perils of walking on train tracks — or the need for safer pedestrian thoroughfares.

Researchers noted that the overall use of headphones probably increased during the study period. If the study has any evidence that not wearing headphones is safer than wearing headphones, none of the press accounts we’ve seen have picked it up.

Then there’s this detail, reported by NPR:

The study is not the last word on the subject, the researchers concede. Because the data are drawn from media reports, they cannot say conclusively whether accident victims might have also had mental problems or drivers might have been at fault, for example.

Come again? With no accounting for driver error, this study isn’t worth the paper its printed on. In taking motor vehicles and their operators out of the equation, you might as well pin pedestrian deaths on Chuck Taylor tennis shoes or Orbit chewing gum.

Even if you start from the premise that the onus is on pedestrians to protect themselves from powerful multi-ton vehicles, the findings here are suspect at best. And though lead author Richard Lichenstein acknowledges that the study is basically a conversation-starter, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stories like the ones circulating today lend credence to the idea that traffic crashes are as unpreventable as natural disasters, and the best we can do is remain vigilant and hope we don’t die. When a paper like the New York Post sees a chance to pen a victim-blaming headline, it doesn’t sweat the small print.

  • Bolwerk

    There is something splendidly stupid about walking around with headphones plugged in, cars be damned. We evolved the ability to hear for a reason, afterall.

  • Ed

    All people that die started by drinking milk

  • Guest

    This is a combination of two negative externalities caused by cars in cities: (1) their intrinsic danger and (2) the noise they create.  You have to turn the volume up to drown out their sound, but it’s that sound that warns you when one of them is about to kill you.  How do we deal with this issue?  Do we create laws (or even expectations) that require drivers to take responsibility for the harms they create? Of course not! This is America.  Cramming your four-ton SUV into a dense urban environment is your God-given right.  

    So instead, we just create another negative externality: right of way.  Now not only is your urban environment invaded by smoke-spewing, bone-crushing, screeching monsters, but YOU are legally required to yield to THEM at a crosswalk.  And if you don’t and one of them kills you then… well, it was your fault for daring to get in their way.

  • red

    Full marks for criticizing Media Lemmings for careless analysis, but I think your comments are, perhaps, just as doctrinaire. I’m saying this from the perspective of being a pedestrian (mostly), a bicyclist (frequently), and a motorist (rarely): distractions from walking, bicycling, and driving are potentially deadly. Whether the distraction is earphones or an electronic display (or both), the result is someone who’s not focused on what’s going on around them. Am I leaning toward support for legislation like what Carl Kruger proposed? No, but when someone — driver, bicyclist, or pedestrian — is distracted, they should shoulder full liability. If you’re going for a walk in the woods, and the woods are home to bears, wolves and wildcats, is it prudent to wear earphones and focus on an electronic display? Just a conversation-starter….

  • Brad Aaron

    @3a9cb377ae68ba7b489d30e5eb859747:disqus Except not everyone can hear, or hear well. Hell, some people can’t even see! What about them? They should know better than to go outside?

    The point as always is that any system as unforgiving as ours — one that imposes the death penalty for being so “stupid” as to expect to, say, listen to music and live — is broken, and will be as long as we keep making excuses for it.

  • Guest

    You’re subscribing to the exact fallacy that this post is criticizing.  Bears, wolves, and wildcats are forces of nature.  Cars are not.  We actually can control* the extent to which cars threaten our lives, especially in dense cities.  We just choose not to.

    We have a choice of what kind of world we want to live in.  We can live in a world where people can walk around with earphones in, oblivious to the world around them because we have made that world safe enough to do so.  Or we can live in a world where people have to be vigilante because we have designed it to be so dangerous.  And of course we can balance these two.  All I’m saying is that declaring earphones to be dangerous is  telling only part of the story and it completely absolves the ones who create the danger in the first place.  And it ignores the fact that driving your car into the city is actually very selfish for putting that burden on other people.

    *we can, of course, control the danger of bears, wolves, and wildcats by hunting them to extinction but I don’t think anyone really wants to do that.  I would, however, like to see single-occupancy cars in New York become an endangered species.

  • Driver

    The world will never be entirely safe.  If you eliminate cars to increase the perception of safety, people will become even more unaware, and even more vulnerable to the remaining road users such as trucks and even bicycles.
    Frankly, I see too many people crossing in traffic without looking, even though they are not wearing headphones.  It seems like it should be much simpler (and safer) for each individual to pay attention to their own surroundings than to insure the rest of the world around that individual protects him/her from their own carelessness.

  • dporpentine

    Gah! Suggesting that people shouldn’t close themselves off from important environmental information is not the same as defending this asinine study.

  • Anonymous

    I thought Chuck Taylor played basketball?

  • dporpentine

    Adding: And bringing people with hearing and visual impairments into the mix is really changing the topic. There’s a clear difference between people who elect to deprive themselves of information and people who don’t.

    This isn’t about blaming victims. Based on how responsive people are to the bell on my bike–even people wearing headphones–I feel pretty darn confident that driver error is to blame in most of these situations. But it doesn”t make me any less annoyed by the individual whose distractions are forcing me to ring my bell and, very often, take evasive and slightly more dangerous action to avoid hitting them.

    In the city we have–not the city we can imagine–there are very real dangers at every turn. And your distractions can subject you and other people to those dangers. So maybe that should be taken into account.

  • carma

    Yes, that is right headphones dont kill people, drivers do.  BUT, if a clueless pedestrian walks into the middle of the street blasting death metal while texting to her BFF, do you now blame the driver?

    part of being a pedestrian is also to respect all other users whether it be another pedestrian, bicyclist or driver.  i dont want to blame the pedestrian for being careless if they are not paying attention, but a little due diligence in respecting everybody else goes a long way too.

  • Joe R.

    I have to say I agree with those who say people should be aware of their surroundings. Even if you waved a magic wand and eliminated all cars, the idea of walking around in a daze wearing headphones doesn’t make sense. There are still all kinds of other hazards (open manhole covers, bad pavement, criminals, etc.). You’ll never be able to make a world safe enough that “people can walk around with earphones in, oblivious to the world around them”, nor would I want to live in such world because anything remotely dangerous would be illegal. Such a world would be a nanny state where adults are treated like children (the movie “Demolition Man” has a good example of such a state). If you want to be nearly totally safe, don’t walk out your front door. Every time you leave, there’s a chance you might not return. 

    What we should really be focusing on is reasonable safety. In order words, if a pedestrian or cyclist pays some attention to their surroundings, they should have the expectation that a car won’t come out of nowhere and kill them. For example, a person on a sidewalk should expect that they will be totally safe from being hit by a motor vehicle. Sadly, that’s not the case now, but some steps, such as curbside bollards, could make it so. The flip side of that is a road user should have a reasonable expectation that a pedestrian isn’t going to just wander into the road right in front of them, whenever and wherever they feel like it, without even looking. I see far too much of that, to the point I’m amazed more people don’t get hit by cars. Fact is a car (or a bike) can’t stop on a dime. It’s incumbent on anyone crossing to look, even when they’re in a crosswalk with the right-of-way. Right-of-way exists only if someone gives it to you. Even people with the best intentions occasionally run a red light because people make mistakes. That’s why you look before crossing. Always. And that’s why motorists should also look for pedestrians. Always. If both did that, then the consequences of a mistake by one party or the other likely wouldn’t be fatal. Usually when a person is killed in the streets it’s because they crossed without looking, and at the same time a motorist simply failed to see them because they weren’t looking.

    I said it before but I’ll say it again-the ultimate best solution for safety of users with disparate needs is grade separation. If I could design the city from scratch, the road network would be completely underground. The surface streets would be much narrower, and exist solely for walking and cycling, each with their own designated lanes.

  • Gegi

    Not sure I remember the last time I heard an open manhole cover. The notion that headphones make you unaware of your surroundings is nonsense nor are people who wear them in a daze. Unless you have fully closed studio headphones on full blast you’ll hear quite a bit of your surroundings. And despite that deaf people seem to get around quite well also.
    On the other hand the myth of kamikaze pedestrians that throw themselves in front of trucks before the poor driver can react is a fantasy. It simply doesn’t happen.
    Drive slowly and carefully and don’t crash into people or things. Simple rule that would save thousands of lives and not hurt anyone.

  • carma

    “In order words, if a pedestrian or cyclist pays some attention to their surroundings, they should have the expectation that a car won’t come out of nowhere and kill them. ”

    even if the most perfect driver were to obey all the rules, and is always alert.  what if the driver was driving, and for some reason the car hits a pothole, blows a tire, and the car ends in the sidewalk.  now, im 99% certain a car going at the 30mph speed limit wont crash into the sidewalk if it encountered this,  but “what if”…

  • Joe R.

    @d8d46f16f380afef59ca318522397233:disqus Sure, the scenario you envisioned could happen, but it’s highly unlikely. And curbside bollards would likely protect against it. Like I said, you can never make a world which is 100% safe. My point is it seems cars hitting people on sidewalks occurs a lot more frequently than it would if this were solely the result of freak accidents. The usual excuse given is “driver lost control”, but short of something mechanical like a blowout, or a medical condition like a heart attack, I just don’t buy that. We’re not talking about people doing laps at Indiananapolis at 220 mph here where a slight twitch of the wheel can send you into the wall. If someone can’t control a car at the speeds typically seen on city streets, then they have no business being behind the wheel.

    @a4caefe0b238b5feae75150d9abca8cc:disqus It’s not that people with headphones on *can’t* hear their surroundings. Rather, it’s that they choose not to by focusing on the music instead. It’s a distraction, same as reading a book while walking, or texting, or talking on the phone. And I do see my share of people crossing without even a cursory glance to see if the street is clear. There’s no speed slow enough to avoid hitting a person doing something like that. This isn’t to excuse driver incompetence. Too many motorists do the same thing as pedestrians and allow themselves to be distracted by electronic gadgets. When pedestrians aren’t watching, and motorists aren’t watching, well, we all know the end results of that.

  • Driver

    “On the other hand the myth of kamikaze pedestrians that throw themselves
    in front of trucks before the poor driver can react is a fantasy. It
    simply doesn’t happen.”
    It happens all the time.  I see it and I experience it.  The result is usually a (too) close call.  I’ve had a few close calls that made my heart pound.  And it amazes me how many people will walk behind a reversing truck without a care in the world.  I once saw HS kids pass UNDER the chassis of a MOVING tractor trailer that was backing into a loading dock. 
    If you really think some people aren’t that stupid, keep in mind the number of people who are killed by trains.  Yes, kamikaze people who put themselves in the path of a moving train.  Wait, that must be fantasy also. 

  • Davistrain

    Regarding “kamikazi pedestrians”: Within the past few weeks I read about a teenage girl in the New York area jumping in front of a bus.  Here in California several people a year are reported as using the Caltrain commuter trains to end their troubled lives.

  • Ex-driver

    Vehicles not akin to bears, wildcats and wolves? I’m not so sure, Guest. Motor vehicles run on fossil fuels. Maybe there’s something to this “animal spirits” business …

  • I will listen to drivers bitching about pedestrians listening to music when cars do not come with radios as the most basic option for the past 50 years.

  • Anonymous

    A few people do jump in front of a truck or train to commit suicide. But what we are talking about here are people who assume that drivers will always be able to avoid them, so these “kamikaze” pedestrians simply start crossing the street whenever they feel like it, without even a cursory look at the road. I see it every day.

  • Dave

    So deaf people can and do use the streets just fine, yet hearing people MUST use their hearing to listen for hazards and are not allowed to listen to music or whatever? Does one need hearing to walk down the street, or not? Which is it?


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