/ Motoring, Technology

Listen up pedestrians, headphones are a health hazard

The number of serious injuries suffered by pedestrians wearing headphones is apparently on the up. With a fear of blowing this US study out of proportion – are headphones a high street safety risk?

The study by the University of Maryland researchers found that serious injuries to headphone wearers had tripled in the US between 2004 and 2011.

However, the word ‘tripled’ exaggerates the actual numbers – there were 16 injuries in 2004-2005, which grew to 47 in 2010-11 (excluding people using mobiles).

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to ignore the increase, as over two-thirds of these accidents resulted in the person dying. Most of the victims were men (68%) and under the age of 30 (67%) – and you’ll be unsurprised to hear that the great majority of these cases happened in urban areas, with over half of the victims being hit by trains.

Turning down my headphone use

So, that’s the US study out of the way, the question is whether there’s been a similar rise in the UK. That’s not a question I can answer, though a rise in UK road deaths has previously been blamed on cyclists wearing iPods.

As headphones get better at blocking sound out, the harder it becomes for people to hear traffic when they’re out and about.

I used to be a big public headphone user, with a good in-ear pair being my amp of choice. The advantage of in-ear buds is that they’re better at blocking out outside noise, which in turn means you don’t need to have them on as loud.

However, a constant ringing in my ears (tinnitus) and a growing fondness for hearing the world around me, has changed my mind. Now headphone wearers are starting to grind my gears.

Turning up my anti-headphone rant

Get ready for my Victor Meldrew outburst… I don’t want to hear your terrible taste of music while I’m commuting on the Tube. Even if I’m a fan of the track you’re playing, the tinny sound that’s seeping out of your headphones is a travesty.

But what’s the biggest thing that gets me tangled up in frustration? When I’m trying to walk at pace through high street crowds, I constantly get stuck behind pedestrians wearing headphones. It’s not their fault – they just can’t hear me coming.

And it’s even more maddening when they’re often walking to the slow tempo of whatever tune that’s blurring into their brain. They can’t even hear you politely say ‘excuse me’ – they’re oblivious, and a careful case of side-stepping is always required to overtake.

Research last year actually discovered that people who play positive music through headphones enjoy a noticeable reduction in their personal space – they don’t care about people rubbing up against them on the Tube. For that, I say good for them.

But back to the safety issue. If you’re walking on the high street and listening to music on your headphones, please take out at least one earbud when you’re about to cross the road. What ever happened to Stop, Look and Listen?


At least those immersed in their own world of music usually look where they are going, unlike people playing with their mobile phones, no doubt texting their friends to say that they are crossing the road. I wonder which is the greater problem.

CaptKirk says:
22 January 2012

I did drive with headphones in for a short period but it hurt my ears and was probably not very safe. I looked at my options on ebay and have now got a £2 FM transmitter that I plug in to my mp3 player to listen to my audio books via my (very basic cassette/FM) car radio (and it works great!). By the way Amazon’s Audible audio book subscription service is great value – £8/month for a credit that will buy any book regardless of RRP. I’m on the Steve Jobs bio which runs to around 18 hours so lots to commute to.

Bill Burnell says:
22 January 2012

Think of it as Darwinian evolution in action. If people are so dumb they have their mp3 players or whatever turned up to the maximum while trying to cross roads etc they deserve anything that happens to them.

Personally I have mine on about 50% volume and only one bud in with the other tucked away so that the sound bleed doesn’t impact on other commuters.


Listening with one ear is not optimal. We evolved with two ears so we could pinpoint the direction danger is coming from.

Jonathon Fields says:
23 January 2012

I have experienced for myself zombie like individuals who cross the road without looking anywhere other than at what ever electronic device they have plugged into their ears. I could not believe that anyone could be so unconscious, and unaware, the first time it happened, but I now recognize “zombies” when using the road in cities, and am prepared for them. They really only survive because of the vigilance of non-zombie drivers, and it is only a matter of time before they are returned to the grave more permanently.

I have also experienced a different type of poser who seems to think they show great bravado, by not being afraid of being run over, and walk out into the road in front of vehicles, causing the driver to jamb on the brakes. These are usually male youths, often wearing silly peaked hats with the peek at the back, and walking with a permanent stoop, looking at their feet, as they swagger into the road. These are another endangered sub-species, though I cannot think anyone would mourn their passing.


I don’t see why it should be (too much of)
an issue of safety in the case of cyclists so
long as they keep their EYES wide
open AND are fully aware of other
users of the road in particular as to
motorized traffic… if a car were to run
a cyclist down from behind, there’s not
much he can do to avoid it however much
he is aware of road conditions and his
wearing of headphones/earpieces or not
should not make the slightest bit of difference
as to any outcome or unintended

Good cycling involves also anticipatory
cycling… the emphasis is on SEEING
what’s going on around you, not so much the
hearing aspect. And be seen, of course,
the more visible the better…….


As to the word I used previously re unintended….. I shall
include ‘negligent’ as there seems to be quite a few reckless
motorists out there who come much too CLOSE to cyclists
when overtaking.


Hi Argonauts, thanks for all the comments. I’ve just noticed that your comments publish with paragraph breaks mid-sentence. This makes your comments quite difficult to read (and like you’ve authored a poem!). This may be because you write your comments in a different word processor and then copy them over.

Your comments will be written in proper paragraphs if you write them directly into the Which? Convo comment box, or if you copy your comments in ‘notepad’ to remove any formatting from another word processor. Thanks!

Personally I do think ‘hearing’ is a very important sense when you’re on the roads – so if you are going to use headphones on your bike, I’d turn the volume down so you can at least hear surrounding traffic in part.


Cyclists + headphones = body count

It must be a windup that you say it’s safe to cycle with headphones! As a daily cycling commuter those with headsets are an absolute liability to themselves and more importantly to those around them. Until we have eyes in the back of our heads, and even not then, it just isn’t safe to block your hearing whether cycling driving or walking. The pedestrians walking or jogging on the cycle route (ok, shared use path) in Hyde Park are a nightmare. You can ring a bell or shout but they are mostly completely oblivious. Real Darwin Award material.