Media: If You Wear Headphones while Walking, You’re as Good as Dead

Various media outlets are trying to scare the bejesus out of us by reporting on a new study published in this month’s issue of Injury Prevention, a leading peer-reviewed journal focused on — you guessed it — research related to reducing injuries. “Deaths of Headphone-Wearing Pedestrians Increase, Study Finds,” was the title of Bloomberg’s article on the research paper. This is one of the more accurate headlines I’ve seen on the study, although even this one is likely being misinterpreted by many, as I’ll explain in a moment. An example of an inaccurate, sloppy, scaremongering title comes from the Toronto Sun, “Wearing headphones while walking can be deadly: Study.” Please. Wearing headphones while walking will almost certainly not kill you.

Many in the media have been conflating what the researchers found, that more pedestrians involved in vehicle collisions have been reported to have been wearing headphones, with “headphone-wearing increases pedestrian-vehicle crash risk.” While the authors note that there is most likely a link between increased risk of pedestrian-vehicle collision and the pedestrian wearing headphones, they specifically point out in their conclusion: “Also, since this is a retrospective case series, neither causation nor correlation can be established between headphone use and pedestrian risk” [emphasis added]. This is because the methodology used by researchers to determine the number of collisions in recent years relied heavily on searches of news databases, such as LexisNexis and Google News, which is not the most scientifically robust way to tabulate incidents given media biases.

It is also worth noting, as the researchers themselves note in their paper, that while these headphone-wearing-pedestrian collisions more than tripled over the six years studied, MP3 player ownership quadrupled over the same period. Simply because more pedestrian-vehicle collisions involving headphone-wearing pedestrians while ownership of headphone-dependent devices increased at a greater rate does not prove headphones necessarily increase pedestrian-vehicle collision risk by much. If a greater proportion of pedestrians are wearing headphones, you would expect that more vehicle-pedestrian collisions would involve pedestrians wearing headphones.

This is not meant to dispute the researchers. After reading it, their study is quite sound given the limitations of data collection. I believe that wearing headphones while walking, all else being equal, almost certainly increases the risk of vehicle collision both by increasing distraction and blocking out the audible environment. Rather, I am trying to highlight another example of media irresponsibly misinterpreting health and safety research in order to unduly frighten the public. As is always the case, the devil is in the details and many reporters have no time for details.

For an infamous example of media stoking the walking-with-headphones-will-kill-you-dead! flames, see this story from a few years back:

The death of a pedestrian in Cranbrook, B.C., on Tuesday has raised the question of how loud is too loud when it comes to listening to iPods and other personal music players.

Isaiah Otieno, a 23-year-old student, was killed when he was struck and dragged by a helicopter that crashed to the ground as he was walking to the mailbox.

That’s right, bipedal music-lovers. Not only will cars almost certainly run you down the moment you set foot on the sidewalk with a functioning iPod, helicopters will be randomly targeting you from above for execution. You are not safe, anywhere, ever!