Like lambs to the slaughter - iPod-listening pedestrians are a danger to themselves according to a 2007 advertisement by the Pedestrian Council of Australia

ABC Science reported new research earlier this month, Pedestrians wearing headphones at risk, indicating the number of pedestrians in the US killed while wearing earphones trebled between 2004 and 2011.

A report by Ninemsn said the majority of victims were male with an average age of 21 years.

The authors of the study highlighted two possible causes for the rise in pedestrian injury due to use of headphones: sensory deprivation and distraction, the latter more specifically called “inattentional blindness,” i.e. when we’re using our gadgets, we’re paying less attention — if any at all — to what’s going on around us. They said that when we’re out and about, being able to hear what’s happening in our immediate environment may be even more important that being able to see.

The research, Headphone use and pedestrian injury and death in the US: 2004-11, is published in the epidemiological journal, Injury Prevention, an international peer-reviewed journal for health professionals. The team was led by Dr Richard Lichenstein, Director of epidemiology at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.

According to the ABC Science report, no one’s collected the numbers in Australia yet so the US data is especially interesting. There’s certainly plenty of concern about the issue locally – see, for example, these earlier reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘La la land’ law: call to ban iPods and phones while crossing roads and Pedestrian death rise blamed on iPods.

I admit to being nervous about my 16 year olds inability to step beyond the front door without wearing earphones, fearing he’ll be struck by the car he didn’t hear over the sound of Opeth. But like any concerned parent, I’m probably exaggerating the risk. It’s important to get this issue in perspective.

Dr Lichenstein and his team found 116 earphone-related pedestrian deaths in the US over a period of eight years. They used various data sources, including the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, supplemented by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google news archives and the Westlaw Campus Research database.

However, as public transport advocacy group, Transportation for America points out, 47,700 pedestrians were killed in the US over the ten year period from 2000 to 2009 (a number consistent with US DoT estimates). Based on that figure, the group calculates the earphone-related deaths identified by Dr Lichenstein et al are equal to around 0.3% of all pedestrian deaths. The two periods aren’t exactly the same, but the general idea is clear.

The conclusion reached by Transportation for America is:

Spending our time focused intently on this tiny aspect of pedestrian deaths is like coming across a person who’s been stabbed in the chest, and worrying about finding the band-aid you need to patch the scrape on his elbow……

You want to know how you are more likely to die while walking? By walking along or trying to cross a busy arterial, state highway or other bigger/busier road eligible to receive federal funding, where fully two-thirds of all pedestrian fatalities from 2000-2009 took place.

It’s not that you aren’t more vulnerable if you use headphones in risky situations, it’s that this source of risk doesn’t appear to be particularly significant. You are far, far more likely to die while walking when you aren’t wearing earphones. As so often happens with urban policy, the danger is the focus of attention will shift to the relatively minor but “intuitively obvious” issue and away from the real – and usually more difficult – problem.

To give some context, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, pedestrian deaths in Australia have been declining for the last thirty years. Deaths of males are more than double those of females (119 vs 55, in 2010). Pedestrian fatalities are also declining in younger age groups – there was a fall of 4% between 2001 and 2010 in the 26-39 years age group and 2% in the 17-25 group.

Of course it might be that Dr Lichenstein and his team simply got it wrong. Perhaps it’s just too hard to identify accurately the scale of pedestrian deaths involving headphones. Still, it’s a peer-reviewed journal and, moreover, it seems to be the only serious attempt to systematically quantify the issue – and that’s got to be a lot better than instinct and hunches.