Folks who walk to work or school while listening to music via headphones may want to unplug, with a new US study finding injuries to this group of people tripling since 2004.
The reason, University of Maryland researchers say, is that use of iPods and other MP3 players makes people much less aware of their environment, including oncoming traffic.
"MP3 usage is common in young adults and teenagers and we found that people wearing headphones are at risk of getting hit and having injury or death," said lead researcher Dr Richard Lichenstein, an associate professor of paediatrics in Paediatric Emergency Medicine Research at the University of Maryland Children's Hospital.
"These are pedestrians getting hit by cars, trains, trucks, vans, buses and things like that," he said. "About 70% of the injuries were fatal and more than 50% of the victims were hit by trains."
The report was published in an online edition of Injury Prevention.
For the study, Lichenstein's team used the US National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and Google to find data on deaths and injuries among pedestrians wearing headphones from January 2004 through June 2011.
During this time, they found 116 such events reported. In 2004-05 just 16 such cases were noted, but that rate rose nearly three-fold to 47 during 2010-2011, the researchers report.
About two-thirds of victims were under 30 years of age, and the most common accident (55%) was being hit by a train. Most such accidents happened in cities, with only 12% occurring in rural areas.
In 70% of cases the accident proved fatal, and in three out of four, bystanders had actually seen the victim wearing headphones just prior to the accident. The sound coming from those headphones likely masked outside noise, because in 29% of the accidents, horns or sirens had been sounded just before the victim was hit.
"People wearing headphones need to be conscious of the outside environment and risk of moving vehicles, because not only are you distracted by the music, but also the sounds of traffic or horns or sirens are blocked," Lichenstein said. Experts label this type of distraction "inattentional blindness."
Commenting on the study, Dr Carl Schulman, director of Injury Prevention Education at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, pointed to an earlier study suggesting that any form of impaired hearing can raise a person's injury risk.
In a 1995 New Zealand study involving almost 200 children, those with (natural) hearing problems had an increased risk of being hit by a car, compared with children with normal hearing, Schulman noted.
This is similar to having one's hearing intentionally blocked by music coming from headphones, so it is not surprising that the new study saw a similar pattern among people plugged into MP3 players, Schulman said.
Lichenstein said the way to reduce the risk is simple. "Be cognizant of the environment. Know there is risk out there. It's not a great idea to be distracted and it's not a great idea to shut out those sounds that may help you live another day," he said.
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