Dear Media Lemmings: Headphones Don’t Kill People, Drivers Do

There’s a University of Maryland study making the rounds today that links pedestrian fatalities with the wearing of headphones — a three-fold increase over the last seven years. Judging from the breathless headlines, the causation is clear. “Study Shows Sharp Rise in Accidents Involving Tuned-Out Pedestrians,” reads the Chicago Tribune. “Fatal Distraction,” says MSNBC. “Music to Die For,” sneers the Post.

Jason King was in a Madison Avenue crosswalk when a dump truck driver backed into him and dragged him 30 feet. King's death prompted then-Senator Carl Kruger to take action -- not for tougher penalties for deadly driving, but for a ban on listening to music while walking. Photo: DNAinfo

But a closer look reveals some major caveats. First, the study relied on notoriously unreliable media reports to come up with 116 cases, between 2004 and 2011, in which pedestrians were killed or injured while wearing headphones (total U.S. pedestrian deaths during those years numbered in the tens of thousands). The majority of victims cited in the study were struck by trains, not cars, which as much as anything could call into question the perils of walking on train tracks — or the need for safer pedestrian thoroughfares.

Researchers noted that the overall use of headphones probably increased during the study period. If the study has any evidence that not wearing headphones is safer than wearing headphones, none of the press accounts we’ve seen have picked it up.

Then there’s this detail, reported by NPR:

The study is not the last word on the subject, the researchers concede. Because the data are drawn from media reports, they cannot say conclusively whether accident victims might have also had mental problems or drivers might have been at fault, for example.

Come again? With no accounting for driver error, this study isn’t worth the paper its printed on. In taking motor vehicles and their operators out of the equation, you might as well pin pedestrian deaths on Chuck Taylor tennis shoes or Orbit chewing gum.

Even if you start from the premise that the onus is on pedestrians to protect themselves from powerful multi-ton vehicles, the findings here are suspect at best. And though lead author Richard Lichenstein acknowledges that the study is basically a conversation-starter, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stories like the ones circulating today lend credence to the idea that traffic crashes are as unpreventable as natural disasters, and the best we can do is remain vigilant and hope we don’t die. When a paper like the New York Post sees a chance to pen a victim-blaming headline, it doesn’t sweat the small print.