The Hazards of Using Headphones While You Walk

A study suggests that headphone-related pedestrian injuries — and even deaths — are on the rise.

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Thomas Fricke

You’ve heard about the hazards of distracted driving — using a cell phone behind the wheel, even with a hands-free headset. But how about distracted walking?

Pedestrians who wear headphones while walking are at greater risk of serious injury or even death than people who don’t tune out, according to a new study published this week in the journal Injury Prevention. Between 2004 and 2011, the study found, 116 pedestrians wearing headphones died or were injured in the U.S. in accidents involving cars or trains they didn’t hear or see coming. Overall, the number of injuries related to headphone use tripled between 2004-05 and 2010-11.

The authors acknowledge that the increased fatality rate may be exaggerated, however, since their data came from sources including the national Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google news archives and the Westlaw Campus Research database, all of which may be biased toward noting deadly accidents involving headphones but underreporting non-fatal ones. It’s also not clear whether headphones directly caused pedestrians’ injuries, or whether driver fault, alcohol, mental illness or suicidal intent could have contributed to the crashes.

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Still, the data should be enough to prompt anyone who likes to listen and walk to think twice before tuning out.

Researchers say that using headphones distracts users from the task at hand, whether that means concentrating on the road and navigating traffic as a driver, or keeping an eye — and ear — out for hazards like trains and cars while walking.

Headphones also serve to isolate users from their environment, cocooning them so that they’re less aware of what’s going on around them. In the study, researchers found that in 29% of cases, victims who were hit by cars or trains apparently failed to hear the warning sounds of horns and sirens.

“The actual sensory deprivation that results from using headphones with electronic devices may be a unique problem in pedestrian incidents, where auditory cues can be more important than visual ones,” lead author Richard Lichenstein of the University of Maryland wrote in the paper.

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Who’s at greatest risk? The study found that most victims were male (68%) and under age 30 (67%). More than half (55%) of the accidents involved a train, and 89% of cases occurred in urban settings.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.