Wearing headphones while commuting is dangerous

An overlooked problem, and what can be done about it

I am biking down Vassar Street when suddenly a pedestrian hops on to the pavement, seemingly unaware he is obstructing the bike lane. Unable to brake due to bike traffic behind me, I ring my bell and yell “watch out!” to warn him of the dangerous situation. To my great confusion, these warnings are continuously ignored even as I approach closer and closer. All I can do next is take a sharp turn to avoid a crash, sending me flying into the fence. The pedestrian strolls blissfully away, forever unaware of the accident he has caused.

The pedestrian, it turns out, was not malicious — he was just listening to his iPod. It is a habit that has become almost inseparable from the daily routines of so many; the next time you are out, count the number of people with some kind of music device plugged into their ears. It is quite concerning to realize they are all aurally disconnected from their surroundings — even more so when it might be a cab driver zooming down the road at 60 miles an hour who cannot hear another car horn, or a mother oblivious to the cries of her baby in the stroller beneath her.

What few realize is that using earphones as part of a daily routine is a genuine public safety concern. The risk is not limited to overly adventurous activities either. Even something as mundane as walking down the street can be dangerous to others, as demonstrated by my pedestrian friend.

The first and hardest step in addressing the problem is convincing people that this is a legitimate concern. While most existing studies focus on the harm caused to users’ ears, there is strong evidence to support that wearing earphones poses a significant threat to others as well. According to a 2012 study published in the journal of Injury Prevention, the number of people in the US suffering serious injury or death while wearing music headphones has risen by 300% over the last six years. In addition, three quarters of those involved in headphone related incidents while walking down the street received fatal injuries.

Contrary to popular belief, auditory signals are just as critical as visual ones during everyday life. Researchers coined the term “inattentional blindness” to describe the lack of awareness caused by oblivion to ambient noises. They found that typical mishaps include missing a step while walking down stairs, leaving a door slam into someone behind you, or even wandering on to a bike lane.

Despite these findings, the times and trends remain well against a safe course of action. If anything, we are moving in the wrong direction. Simple earphones of yesteryear are no longer satisfactory for today’s tech-savvy urbanites. It has instead become ‘trendy’ to wear noise-cancelling boomboxes over one’s head, blasting music at volumes that push the boundaries of the human ear.

It is time to hold a serious discussion regarding steps the MIT community can take to make our maze of a campus, filled with bikes, trucks, city roads, and hundreds of earphone-wearing students, safer to navigate by limiting portable music to the appropriate time and place. I do not propose draconian bans or formal restrictions, preferring a good deal of common sense. Public awareness should be drawn to this overlooked issue, particularly targeting higher risk groups like cyclists and outdoor athletes.

Massachusetts state law stipulates that wearing musical headphones while operating a motor vehicle is illegal, and cyclists should be at least as aware as drivers when navigating the roads. As for the average person wandering out and about, it is reasonable to momentarily unplug in crowded settings where the probability of collisions and accidents is highest. Publishing advertisements, posters, or even opinion columns in the student paper should encourage the community to view inappropriate headphone use in the same light as other unsafe behavior, like texting behind the wheel or jogging at night without reflective gear.

I anticipate many impassioned music listeners will resist the prospect of restricting their favorite pastime, but the trade-off is worth it if it means fewer accidents and a safer community.

Eric over 10 years ago

I agree, although I do it all the time!

Richard Ottolini over 10 years ago

Bicyclists follow the same loaws as drivers, unless a law specifically applies to bicyclists. Therefore covering both ears while riding is technically illegal. But I have never heard of that law enforced for either drivers or riders.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

I am 'plugged in' almost all of the time as well, but have never felt unsafe walking around campus or believe I have endangered anyone.

Although... I can imagine myself totally ignoring someone saying 'excuse me' or trying to get by in the hallways, because I probably have no idea they are even there.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

Perhaps, but don't expect this behavior to change anytime soon.

Arthur P. over 10 years ago

"the number of people in the US suffering serious injury or death while wearing music headphones has risen by 300 over the last six years"

Quite a dramatic statistic; in addition to the percentage increase, I would be interested to know the actual number of such accidents.