Keeping "One Ear Open": The Dangers of Earbuds and Headphones

Nearly everyone likes listening to a good tune. Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Technological advances in mobile technology and improved data streaming have increased access to on-demand streaming music. The number of paying subscribers to subscription music services rose from 8 million in 2010 to 41 million in 2014. To facilitate the intensity of their musical experience, the music enthusiasts seek out high-quality headphones. Noise cancelling full-sized headphones and ultra-compact, custom fitting, in-ear headphones have become common accessories for today’s music lovers; however, the incredible booming bass, noise cancelling, and all-encompassing musical experience enjoyed by music lovers might be coming at an extreme price—and that price just might cost one their life.

University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore published a report in the journal Injury Prevention in which lead author Dr. Richard Lichenstein researched and found that from 2004 through 2011, there were 116 reports of death or injury among pedestrians wearing headphones.

Accidents Involving Headphones and Earbuds Are on the Rise

Their research found that this trend is becoming more prevalent: in 2004-2005, there were 16 reported incidents while in 2010-2011 there were 47 reported incidents. Lichenstein and his team said that the distraction of the music causes “inattentional blindness.” The report explained that 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 states. Dr. Richard Lichenstein explained that while most people are aware of the risk of phones and texting, he sees more youths 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,” he stated.

Lichenstein and his associates found several statistical facts which were common in these incidents:

  • 68% of the victims were male.
  • 67% were under 30 years of age.
  • 90% of incidents occurred in large cities.
  • Nearly 70% of the incidents were fatal.
  • In 29% of incidents, a warning was sounded before the crash incident.
  • 55% of these incidents involved trains.

Sadly, this trend has only intensified since Lichenstein’s study concluded in 2011. Here is just a sampling of similar tragic incidents which have occurred nationwide since 2011:

Headphone and Earbud Related Accidents in the US

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin - February 2012

An 11-year old child walked across a railroad crossing and was struck by a Canadian Pacific freight train. The boy had his head down, was wearing a hoodie, and had headphones on his ears.

Wyandotte, Michigan - February 2012

A 14-year old boy was walking on the railroad tracks when he was struck by a Canadian Northern train traveling the same direction. The boy was wearing headphones.

Franklin, Indiana - March 2012

A 15-year old boy was walking on railroad tracks adjacent to the Franklin College campus when he was struck by a Louisville & Indiana Railroad freight train. The boy was utilizing headphones at the time of the crash incident.

Louisville, Kentucky - March 2013

A 21-year old man walking home from work walked into the path of a P&L Railway train in Louisville, Kentucky resulting in his death. The coroner reported that headphones were found around the man’s neck.

Isanti, Minnesota - May 2013

A 19-year old Minnesota woman didn’t hear the BNSF freight train that struck and critically injured her because she was wearing headphones. Two men who saw the train yelled at her, but she didn’t hear them.

Fairburn, Georgia - December 2013

A 19-year teenager attempting to cross railroad tracks was struck and killed when he stepped into the path of an oncoming train. He was found to be wearing headphones.

Hampstead, Maryland - May 2014

A 23-year old man walking on the train tracks was unable to hear a CSX freight train’s repeated horn blasts; he was struck and seriously injured. He was reportedly wearing earbuds with the volume maxed out.

Minneapolis, Minnesota - September 2014

40-year old female walked up the concrete ramp to the station and tried to cross the tracks at the station’s crosswalk. Despite the flashing red warning lights, a flashing signals and clanging bells, the woman reportedly stepped directly into the path of a passenger train transporting 40 people to the Minnesota State Fair. The woman was wearing headphones and died at the scene.

Rancho Cordova, California -November 2014

A 15-year old female was walking across light rail tracks on her way home from school. Despite activated warning lights and the train horn sounding repeatedly, the young woman walked into the path of the train and was struck and killed. She was wearing headphones.

Phoenix, Arizona - February 2015

A woman walking on railroad tracks was struck by a BNSF train. Despite the train and nearby crossing devices giving warning, the woman was killed. She was wearing headphones.

Cedar Lake, Indiana - March 2015

A 13-year old boy was struck and killed by a train as he walked home from school along railroad tracks in Cedar Lake, Indiana: he was wearing earphones and a hoodie pulled over his head. The engineer reportedly blew the train horn repeatedly.

Lawrence, Indiana - April 2015

In Lawrence, Indiana a pedestrian walking on the CSX Railroad tracks was struck and killed near a crossing close to 45th Street and Payton Avenue. Law enforcement reported that the pedestrian had headphones in and likely didn't hear or see the train approaching.

Franklin, Tennessee - May 2015

A 17-year old Franklin, Tennessee boy was struck and killed by a train while walking with his back to the train and wearing ear bud style headphones.

Boone County, Kentucky - July 2015

An athletic 14-year old boy jogging on the railroad tracks was struck and killed by a train near his home. It was found that he was wearing headphones when he was struck.

Delray Beach, Florida - December 2015

A 16-year old boy hoping to earn a college baseball scholarship was struck and killed by a northbound Florida East Coast Railway train; the engineer told police he saw the boy and repeatedly blew his horn but was unable to stop the train before it hit the boy. The boy was wearing headphones.

Slidell, Louisiana - January 2016

A 16-year old male walking on railroad tracks was struck and killed by a southbound Norfolk Southern freight train; he reportedly had headphones over his ears.

Anderson, Indiana - March 2016

A 33-year old Anderson, Indiana man was seriously injured as he walked along the CSX Railroad tracks facing away from the train; despite the engineer sounding the horn and bell, the man failed to react and was struck causing serious injuries. The man reportedly tried to exit the tracks just before impact but didn’t have enough time to clear the train. He was still wearing headphones upon the arrival of first responders as he laid injured alongside the tracks.

These nationwide incidents are clearly alarming. It should be noted that railroad tracks are private property and walking on railroad tracks anywhere other than at a publicly accessible grade crossing is, in most states, a criminal act. But the safety concerns do not involve just railroads; many motorists chose to utilize ear buds or headphones while operating their automobiles creating additional safety hazards and concerns.

Public Safety officials and first responders across all disciplines have a dangerous job of navigating through traffic as they respond to calls for assistance. The danger they face as they move through traffic is enhanced when the motoring public fails to adjust to their presence; it is becoming more common that this failure to adjust to changing conditions is caused by the utilization of ear buds or headphones. Is this dangerous act illegal?

Regulations About the Use of Headphones Varies State to State

In the United States, 33 states have no law or regulation restricting the use of ear buds or headphones while operating a motor vehicle. Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington all have statutes which to some degree limit or restrict the use of ear buds or headphones while operating a motor vehicle. Many states permit use or ear buds or headphones - but only in one ear. Consult with authorities in your local jurisdiction to inquire what restrictions may be in place in your community.

Motorists, users of ATM’s, those awaiting service in restaurant drive thru’s, and even pedestrians or bicyclists who use ear buds or headphones are increasing their risk of becoming a crime victim. Reducing one’s ability to hear or detect activity, motion, or movement in their vicinity reduces their situational awareness, which increases the risk that they might become a victim of crime. Criminal opportunists commonly look for victims who exhibit a perceived lower situational awareness. Those who are not paying attention to the actions of those around them are at an increased risk of becoming a crime victim. The use of ear buds and/or headphones enhances this possibility.

At Keller & Keller, we want you to stay safe! Never trespass on railroad property, and if you choose to utilize ear buds or headphones, be sure to leave one ear uncovered so that you might maintain good situational awareness of your surroundings. Always maintain an ability to listen for hazards, threats, or suspicious activity around you. So if you are out for a jog, enjoying a trail, going for a walk, or driving around town, do it safely and keep at least one ear open!


About the Author

Bryan Wolfe is an Investigator assigned to the Keller & Keller Indianapolis Headquarters Office. Bryan has a BS from the University of Indianapolis in Criminal Justice, and has been a law enforcement officer since August 1998. In addition to his investigative duties at Keller & Keller, Bryan also serves as a Sergeant on the Marion County (Indiana) Sheriff’s Office in Indianapolis.