Listening to music can get pedestrians run over

Crossing the street while listening to music is highly dangerous, say researchers – even more so than talking on the phone.

A team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham has tested a variety of scenarios involving distracted pedestrians – in a virtual-reality simulation, we hasten to add – by asking 125 students to cross a two-lane road while cars drove at 30 mph.

“Your brain has to process much information to cross a street safely,” says David Schwebel, director of UAB’s Youth Safety Laboratory.

“The car on your left — how fast is it going, how far away is it and is it accelerating or decelerating? Same for the car on your right. And in addition to that you have to think about the width of the road and how quickly you can cross that distance.”

Some of the findings were predictable. People talking on the phone were twice as likely to be hit as those with zero distractions – 12 percent compared to six percent. People texting were twice as likely to be hit as those talking, up to 25 percent.

But Schwebel – who’s performed many pedestrian safety studies before – says he was stunned to find that one in three people listening to music with ear buds failed to cross the street safely.

“The driving literature suggests that listening to the radio while driving is not particularly dangerous. We found that listening to music while crossing the street is dangerous, and I did not anticipate that,” says Schwebel.

“The big thing with music is that your ears are distracted. You are listening to the music — and not listening to the traffic. I suspect that we use our ears quite a bit more than we realize to safely cross the street.”

The simulation can’t have been all that accurate – the world’s full of people listening to music while crossing the street, and we aren’t seeing carnage on quite this sort of scale. But it’s something people should take seriously, says Schwebel.

Schwebel points out that with no laws against drunk walking, there’s not likely to be legislation against distracted walking any time soon. Instead, he says, people should simply turn their sounds off if they don’t want to be raspberry jam.