Pedestrian deaths, blaming the victim: headphones editionJanuary 19, 2012
By Stephen Lee Davis
|No headphones pictured here. Originally uploaded by Transportation for America to Flickr.
|Submitted photo by Joan Hudson, P.E., of the Texas Transportation Institute.|
A new academic study looking at the numbers of pedestrians killed while wearing headphones ignores the overwhelming majority of pedestrian deaths, providing a healthy dose of blaming the victim while turning a blind eye to the actual problem.
At first glance, the numbers sound incredible. “The number of headphone-wearing pedestrians seriously injured or killed near roadways and railways has tripled in six years…” Wow, they’ve tripled? That must be a lot, right?
When you examine the numbers closely, though, it’s clear that this study is examining a share of pedestrian fatalities so small as to be almost statistically insignificant when compared to the problem of pedestrian deaths writ large.
The study has been highly successful at winning credulous news coverage and shifting blame to the victims, but by focusing on a tiny sliver of fatalities it does more to obscure the true causes than explain what is happening.
“Oh, they’re all wearing headphones now. That’s why pedestrians are getting killed.”
Let’s stop for a minute and acknowledge that being distracted is never a good idea, whether driving or walking. Especially if you’re navigating busy streets, you need all available senses at your disposal to make sure you arrive at your destination safely. That means not texting and keeping your eyes on the road while driving, and making sure that you can hear and see when walking.
From 2000-2009 47,700 people were killed while walking in the U.S. This University of Maryland study found 116 deaths in 8 years where headphones were said to be involved, or about 0.3% of all pedestrian deaths during the study period.
Spending our time focused intently on this tiny aspect of pedestrian deaths is like coming across a person who’s been stabbed in the chest, and worrying about finding the band-aid you need to patch the scrape on his elbow.
Which further proves just how loony the headline is in this story. (“Study: You are more likely to die walking with headphones”) This study doesn’t prove that you’re more likely to die while walking and wearing headphones, it just shows that those deaths have been increasing.
You want to know how you are more likely to die while walking? By walking along or trying to cross a busy arterial, state highway or other bigger/busier road eligible to receive federal funding, where fully two-thirds of all pedestrian fatalities from 2000-2009 took place.
The primary reasons for the other 35,885 or so pedestrian deaths in the last 10 years hasn’t changed with the rise of smartphones, iPods and ubiquitous white earbuds. That song remains the same: millions of people live on or near streets and roads that aren’t safe for walking; streets without sidewalks, streets without safe crossings, streets that force far too many people to brave unsafe conditions on foot simply to get from A to B.
Are we concerned about making these roads safer? Are we studying smart solutions and ways to use federal funds to retrofit these dangerous corridors to make them safer for everyone — an appropriate decision, since federal funds and design guidelines helped create many of these dangerous corridors in the first place.
Nope, we’re studying what may (or may not have) contributed to the death of 0.3% of all people killed while walking in the last 8 years. And using the numbers for even more ammunition in the never ending quest to blame the victim
Admittedly, with problems so big that any solution will be complex and layered, there’s a tendency to look for a simpler explanation and try to find a more manageable problem that we can solve. Just like coming across a person with the sucking chest wound and having no medical experience under our belt, sometimes we’re just overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. So we focus on the elbow scrape we can fix that just needs a band-aid.
But this problem demands and deserves our immediate attention. Instead of spending our time concerned with why the 0.3% were killed, how about we stop and have a serious look at the larger, and much more serious problem of the 99.7%?
Every year we don’t, another 4,000-plus people die preventable deaths.