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Study: Headphones Dangerous for Pedestrians

The death of a Middle River girl struck and killed by a train in 2010 provided the motivation for the newly released research from the University of Maryland.

Anna Marie Stickel never heard the train coming that struck and killed her a little more than two years ago.

The 14-year-old Middle River girl had headphones on as she listened to music and walked along the tracks on the way to school that tragic day. It was that prompted Dr. Richard Lichenstein to study the dangers of pedestrians wearing headphones.

What Lichenstein, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center, discovered was that Stickel’s death was far from an isolated incident. Her death, he concluded, could be a part of a national safety issue.

According to Lichenstein’s study, 116 people have been injured while walking with their headphones on since 2004, with most of them being injured in the last few years. According to his study, 16 people were injured while walking and wearing headphones in 2004. By last year, that number increased to 81.

“Everyone is aware of the dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone or texting,” Lichenstein said. “But, there are plenty of dangers involved when people are walking with these devices and not paying attention to (their) surroundings.”

According to Lichenstein’s study, about 70 percent of the victims in the reported accidents died. In addition, 55 percent of the accidents involved trains and 29 percent of those operating the vehicles involved in the accidents reported sounding some sort of warning or horn prior to the accident.

Lichenstein said the pedestrian’s distraction caused by electronic devices is called “inattentional blindness,” in which, according to the study “multiple stimuli divide the brain’s mental resource allocation.” 

In addition, according to the study, pedestrians wearing headphones experience “sensory deprivation,” in which the sounds coming from the electronic devices mask the person’s ability to hear a warning signal.

“I’m not looking for any legislation or regulations when it comes to pedestrians walking with headphones,” Lichenstein said. “I just want to bring awareness to the issue. We’re so worried about missing something in today’s wireless world, but if you’re not careful, you could miss everything because you were killed.”

Tara Stickel, Anna Marie’s mother, said while she considers wearing headphones a “contributing factor” in her daughter’s death, it wasn’t the main reason.

That, Stickel said, was her being on the train tracks in the first place. Stickel used her daughter’s death to lobby Amtrak and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger to upgrade security along the tracks. Amtrak

“I love my baby girl very much but the fact still remains she should have never been where she was,” Tara Stickel said. “That’s what took her life, not a set of headphones. So in Anna’s case, I don't think trying to connect headphones to her death is appropriate.”

Still, Stickel admits Lichenstein’s study has some merit and hopes others will take his results seriously.

“I feel that anytime your hearing, or vision is obstructed there are potential problems and in cases where you have joggers on a street, headphones should be worn with caution,” Stickel said.

“I think anyone wearing headphones should adjust the volume according to their surroundings. If you're on the street you should be able to hear a sounding horn or a warning scream from someone indicating you're in danger.”

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