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A new deadly distraction: Pedestrians wearing headphones

March 23, 2012 by Steven M. Gursten

Accident attorney: “distracted walking” accidents with earphones aren’t a punch-line anymore

It sounds at first like a punch-line to a joke or a movie gag. Man with earphones. Man not paying attention. Man walks right into pole. Laugh track.

But even though it sounds odd, “distracted walking” – especially when someone is reading e-mails or listening to music, is very unsafe. And statistics show the injuries caused by such distracted walking accidents have tripled.

Pedestrians are already at risk using crosswalks and sidewalks around high traffic areas. But walking around with headphones on while listening to music creates a new dangerous situation when you are oblivious to the sounds around you.

For instance, an 11-year-old Wisconsin boy named Joey Kramer was hit by a train in late February. According to published reports, he was wearing ear bud speakers under a hood and did not see the flashing lights or hear the warning bells.

The very next day, a 14-year-old boy was struck by a train in Wyandotte, Michigan, under similar circumstances. In both cases, there appears to be ample negligence in how these train crossings were configured, and I should disclose that I am consulting now on one of these train death cases.

A U.S. study published just last month shows serious injuries involving pedestrians wearing headphones have more than tripled since 2004. Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that in many of these cases, the people were hit by vehicles because their music blocked out horns or sirens alerting them to danger. Again, the dangers and duties posed by a car or bus passing by in the street is very different from the duties and obligations imposed by law on trains and at a train crossing, but the message is the same: it is becoming a foreseeable danger as it becomes more and more prevalent.

The researchers studied the data of 116 accidents involving pedestrians wearing headphones between 2004 and 2011. The number of incidents rose from 16 in 2004 to 47 in 2011. In 70 percent of cases, the headphone-wearing pedestrians died as a result of the injuries they sustained from being hit by traffic. Further, 59 percent of the accidents occurred in large metropolitan areas with populations larger than 1 million.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Richard Lichenstein, said also said that while most people are aware of the risk of cell phones and texting in automobiles, he sees more and more teens distracted with the latest devices and headphones in their ears. “Unfortunately, as we make more and more enticing devices, the risk of injury from distraction and blocking out other sounds increases,” the doctor said.

The study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, found that young men were most at risk of pedestrian accident, with 68 percent of the 116 victims being male and 67 percent under the age of 30.

Lichenstein and his team said that the distraction of the music causes “inattentional blindness.” According to the researchers, the human brain has only so many resources to allocate to receiving stimuli. And multiple stimuli “divide the brain’s mental resource allocation,” the report notes.

Here is more information about the study: Headphone use and pedestrian injury and death in the United States.

Michigan pedestrian injury accidents in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and East Lansing

Michigan cities such as Grand Rapids and Detroit have large populations that walk around the city during the day. A large university population in Ann Arbor and East Lansing equals heavy pedestrian traffic of a younger crowd more likely to use these devices. According to the study, people in large cities are more likely to be involved in distracted walking accidents.

Here are some annual statistics from the Michigan Department of State Police on pedestrians:

  • Since 2001, a total of 1,417 pedestrians have been killed, accounting for 12.7 percent of all traffic crash deaths during that period.
  • In 2010 there were 2,333 pedestrians involved in motor vehicle crashes, with 131 pedestrians killed and 1,883 pedestrians injured.
  • The 131 pedestrian fatality count is an increase of ten deaths (8.3 percent) from the 2009 figure. For each pedestrian killed, there were 14.4 pedestrians injured.

Most pedestrians were in crashes occurring during the early evening hours (3:00 p.m. – 8:59 p.m.). However most pedestrian fatalities occurred during hours of darkness. Thursday was the deadliest day for pedestrians in 2010, with 23 fatalities.

Source: 2010 Michigan Traffic Crash Facts

Who has the right of way?

The Michigan Motor Vehicle Code Section (MMVC) 257.612 (ii) states: …The vehicular traffic shall yield the right of way to pedestrians lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk and to other traffic lawfully using the intersection.

Bicyclists also have the same rights and rules as motorists and must also yield to pedestrians lawfully in the roadway.

Pedestrians have the right-of-way when actively crossing in a crosswalk without signals.

But just because a law is in place does not mean a pedestrian can be assured a car will stop. Many drivers who are distracted are also a risk, for they may not know the pedestrian has the right of way, or as I typically see as an auto attorney, these drivers are texting or calling someone on their cell phones while driving.

How to stay safe and avoid pedestrian accidents

The Michigan Department of State recently published a brochure on pedestrian safety that provides helpful tips and statistics for pedestrians.

Pedestrian injuries represent the second largest category of motor vehicle-related deaths across the country. Increasing awareness of pedestrian safety issues is the key to reducing the problem of pedestrian motor vehicle-related deaths.

We send our sincere condolences to the families of Joey Kramer and to the Wyandotte teen.

Steven Gursten is an accident attorney, president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past-president of the American Association for Justice Truck Accident Litigation Group. Steve frequently writes and speaks on safe driving and Michigan auto laws.

Related Information:

Michigan cell phone ban proposal

Distracted driving accidents – they can happen to you

What to do at the scene of an auto accident

Michigan Auto Law exclusively handles car accident, truck accident and motorcycle accident cases throughout the entire state of Michigan. We have offices in Farmington Hills, Sterling Heights, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Detroit. Call (248) 353-7575 or to speak with one of our accident attorneys today.

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