/ 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.

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.

Talia says:
23 January 2012

Interesting research. I am one of those pedestrians who wears headphones when out and about, mainly to keep me entertained but also when I’m on buses and toher public transport to drown out music that other commuters are playing out loud on their phones (grrr, my biggest bugbear).

But the other day I spotted a cyclist with headphones in. That’s asking for trouble surely. It’s a hard life for cyclists vying for space on the roads with cars and buses let alone trying to do so without being able to hear what’s going on around them.

Patrick, the use of so-called suspension points…. is intended as
denoting a continuing albeit less formal logical sequence of thoughts and
related events that I am inspired to use BTW from the collected writings
of a great English writer now deceased whom I greatly admire as to his
writing skills, inter alia. Furthermore, I don’t think they’re grammatically
INcorrect or as to wrong use of English, so I shd (another use of his) be glad
if you shall see to NOT editing or censoring out particularly ANDa fortiori
this is only a conversation or a chat. In any event, one uses suspension points
also where one does not (wish to) reveal subject matter thereof as to what is
contained therein.Thanks for your refrain.

A bit surprised though innocuous word s_ _w as in s_ _wed-up was picked on
by yr software. Much like a Council’s planning dept picked on
‘erection’ in an email a professional firm of architects sent that was
rejected in its entirety

Talia, it’s not that important to HEAR what’s around as to SEE that’s
really important in the case of cyclists.

Argonaut – Pardon me for coming in on this but it seems like quite a number of readers agree with Patrick on your formatting. Suspension points are fine – it’s line breaks that disrupt the flow of your comments. You usually make some very good points but the formatting does make it more difficult for readers to get your meaning.

John Ward

Let me quote what the editor of his writings had said as to
use of suspension points.

“Brackets have been brought in (inter alia) to show editorial insertions,
such as dates for undated letters…they have also been used with dashes,
suspension points, thus,[…] or[….] to show other matter has been left out.
In the majority of cases, omitted matter is simply repetitious or
unimportant; in some few cases, its publication might have given offence
to living people.”

Let me quote an excerpt from a letter of his he wrote when aged 23
sent to a Mrs Naomi Hutchinson.

“My dear Naomi

The school … or rather one section of it … is buzzing with
excitement over the proposed foundation of Eton Political Society.”

Another when aged 62 addressed to ‘My dear Humphrey’

“The play situation is still in status quo— de Liagre, the producer, waiting
to hear from Deborah Kerr. [….] Meanwhile I have postponed work……………”.

I do not find any of the the above ambiguous in any way
or lacking clarity, do you?

This is an informal chat forum where it is not an
absolute requirement as to:

1. Conciseness.
2. Comprehensibility.
3. Comprehensiveness.
4. Accuracy.

or as to proper use of Queen’s English


as to things said or the matters set out as one would expect
to find in formal court documents filed.

Thank you for taking an interest in the stuff I write.


You still don’t
get it do

Why are your lines broken
in the middle of your sentences?

NukeThemAll says:
23 January 2012

One of my pet hates, as someone who cycles canal towpaths for both commuting and pleasure, is the ‘wired up’ jogger. He/she is so convinced of their Great Speed that they’re not aware that, sorry, I can go **much** faster. So when I approach from behind, no amount of bell-ringing or shouting (according to which bike I’m riding) alerts them to my presence. Can’t compete with Adele at full volume. Sometimes I’ve had to barge past and when one (female) jogger gave me grief for ‘creeping up’ behind her, I nearly lost it and dumped her in the canal. But that would have annoyed the fish, so I didn’t. Of course, some of the local Neds like to ride their MotoCross bikes along the towpath – wonder that will happen then….?

You might be able to go **much** faster but that is not appropriate on a towpath and is both stupid and irresponsible when you are sharing it with pedestrians who have priority.

British Waterways’ Code of Conduct says: Slow down when approaching pedestrians and only pass when it is safe to do so. Extra care should be taken when passing children, less able people and animals.

And no laughing if the wired-up jogger carelessly falls in the canal.

Find pedestrians clued in to whatever stuff round the
ears a bit of a nuisance, a very/loud thank you
usually does the trick… foghorn not quite loud enough.

[Priority use does not mean exclusive use
where cyclists have unfettered/equal use/access
as well re the towpaths].

Applies whether on towpath, legal shared use
of wide pavements and in determined cases of
seemingly want to commit hara-kiri on the
open roads AND in cases where pedestrians
are simply much too careless or inattentive.

Gavin says:
25 January 2012

Do the Which podcast team think deaf people should be kept off the street because they cannot hear the traffic around them?

Good question, and good reply. I’m puzzled as to why Gavin got 6 minuses.

Of course, it’s also important to remember, when driving, never assume a pedestrian can hear you coming (or hear your horn) even if he is not wearing headphones. Always assume the pedestrian is deaf, and be relieved if they turn out not to be.

I assume that Gavin was marked down because they are disagreeing with the suggestion about the thoughts of the Which? podcast team. Does it matter? Patrick, who is on the team, has responded with a sensible comment in a way that is easy to agree with.

NukeThemAll says:
27 January 2012

wavechange, FYI, I always cycle in a very responsible manner and **never** recklessly speed on a towpath but ensure I give way to peds and give them lots of warning of my approach. I’m especially considerate to those who might be a bit or totally deaf, since I’m heading that way myself! But the ‘super-hero’ willfully-deaf jogger who thinks 7 mph is ‘supersonic’ and so no-one could possibly want to pass is, IMHO, much more of a danger to themselves and others than any of the ‘fast’ cyclists I encounter. But I wouldn’t wish falling into the canal on anyone – having been in myself (pulling out a 4-year old girl, long story) it was a tad unpleasant, even in mid-summer. A winter dip might literally be fatal….As has been said (much better than I could) humans as yet haven’t got 360-degree vision so denying yourself a major sensory input isn’t really clever in many circumstances.

Fair enough, but you did say you could go **much** faster than a jogger. There are many who tear along canal towpaths on bikes and I have watched cyclists on mountain bikes leaping over roach poles that should not have been across the towpath. Thank goodness that most people are reasonably sensible.

I agree with your comments about the hazards.

NukeThemAll says:
29 January 2012

Roach poles??? ….oh yes, another problem: the fisher folk. Nearly all of them are totally fine and don’t block the towpath (or riverside path) with their enormous, er, tackle (no sniggering at the back! Yes, you, laddy!) However, there’s a mutant sub-species who insist on laying their expensive carbon-fibre rods along the towpath. Kind of like showing off. And then, of course (coarse? sorry….) they put their headphones on. Peds can easily step over said rods. Those skilled in the art of mountain biking ‘bunny hops’ (me on a good day) can negotiate the obstacles – although one mis-timed landing = wrecked rod. “Excuse me, can you move your rod – the ‘towpath rules’ do tell you not to block the path. EXCUSE ME!” Then, I see the giveaway leads into his ears (or trailing under his cap). Deaf. Oblivious. Zombi zoned. Part of The Matrix. Whatever…..sigh……

Welcome to the suspension points club.
I see that I’m not the only guy being
comfortable using […] or [….] or brackets.
The great and the good have used them, so why
not little me? (must not digress too much
though). They do it all the time as to the latter in
a certain business or professions I cd name.

Self don’t like self-induced stone-deaf ‘fishermen’ and peds
either, whether obnoxious old dears, old fogeys or
anybody else wrongly objecting in cases where the law clearly
allows shared use and access.

Fishing rods causing an obstruction may be crushed
after due notice has been given and that’s an act of
indulgence on part of passing cyclists who are generally
nice blokes.

Never learnt the ‘bunny hop’, poor me!

c k
You still haven’t got it despite all that I’ve said on suspension
points […] or [….] including those quoted of a far more learned
person – an English professor- than humble self.

Sorry, I know what suspension points are but I don’t understand what these have got to do with line breaks.

P.S. Isn’t there another conversation specifically about writing style and punctuation so that we don’t end up hijacking this conversation?

Patrick, you’re being repetitious as having said this before.
I shall continue with my style of writing and use of English
that I feel comfortable and natural with as per Which?
commenting guidelines.

I don’t think there’s any ambiguity in what I say or as to
its comprehensibility overall. If you do not understand ‘a fortiori’
for example, does it mean I shall be required to use another
term instead or leave it out altogether OR having to anticipate
possible non-comprehension on your or third-party part?
I use correct terms/words to convey precisely meaning
I intend to convey. Tough if you can’t understand it.

I shd hope you shall not dictate (too much) as to what I can
or cannot say or write, or indeed as to my own style of writing.

BTW I have commented fairly profusely on various other online articles
not including those in the DM and no one has ever taken issue
with my style of presentation/writing OR indeed as to the contents

Thank you for not editing or interfering.