How dangerous is it to walk, talk and listen?

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

  • Published

Image caption,
Police are trying to increase awareness of the risks of "divided attention"

In the jargon of this tech-savvy age, it has been dubbed "iPod oblivion" - and Australian police say it can be lethal for pedestrians and cyclists, alike.

It is a near trance-like state people can apparently enter while using mobile phones, MP3 players or electronic personal organisers.

Psychologists call it "divided attention" or "inattentional blindness," and it is increasingly becoming the focus of road safety awareness campaigns around the world.

Some of the worst offenders are pedestrians who not only listen to music with headphones plugged into both ears, but simultaneously punch out text messages or check e-mails as they pound the pavement. Cyclists who ride while listening to iPods are also at risk, according to campaigners.

In the Australian state of Victoria, police have been warning for months about the dangers of "iPod oblivion" and their fears were realised earlier this month when a 45-year-old cyclist rode into the path of a tram while using one of the players.

Unaware of the oncoming tram, he was knocked off his bike and then pushed along the tram tracks. Police say he was lucky to escape with only minor injuries - bruising to his leg and a sore knee.

Image caption,
A mobile phone could be more distracting than an iPod

While there is no law stopping the use of headphones while cycling, the Victorian police are trying to increase public awareness of the risks. They are also penalising pedestrians who flout road safety laws.

In early May, the police launched a crackdown on errant pedestrians, who were ignoring red lights and not using designated crossings.

In the space of three days, 613 pedestrians were given penalty notices and fines. Many were using iPhones or other portable devices, according to Inspector Greg Parr of the Victoria Police.

'Affecting concentration'

"You call it 'iPod oblivion', I just call it stupidity," said Inspector Parr. "It's a constant problem. They just walk up to the road and keep on walking.

"We have always told motorists to look out for pedestrians. Now we are increasingly telling pedestrians to look out for motorists," he said.

"We are stressing equal responsibility. In road accidents in the central business district in Melbourne, 90% are caused by pedestrians."

In Victoria, pedestrian deaths have shown a worrying increase. In 2008, there were 59 fatalities compared with 41 the previous year.

Inspector Parr says much of the increase is explained by a surge in the number of people using public transport as a result of the global economic downturn, but that there is no data on how many of the accidents were linked to the use of electronic devices.

"It's not just pedestrians, it's cyclists," says Inspector Parr. "People riding their bikes to work. It has to affect your concentration."

A survey from Queensland released in September last year by the Australian insurance company, NRMA Insurance, highlighted how common the use of electronic devices has become, and how distracting they can be to pedestrians.

It suggested that 80% of people aged between 18 and 29 sent text messages while they were walking along the road, and that 73% listened to some kind of MP3 player.

"It's how young people live," says Inspector Robert McCall of the Queensland Police. "They put these things in their ears and then they're off."

About 40 pedestrians are killed on the roads in Queensland each year, mostly as a result of disobeying Don't Walk signs, running across busy roads, and intoxication. Again, the fear is that the so-called iPod oblivion could be a factor.

"London, Bonn, Sydney, Brisbane. It's exactly the same," says Inspector McCall. "I think we are fighting a losing battle because of the use of so much new technology."

Don't just blame the teens

"iPod oblivion" may well be something of a misnomer since a recent study from psychologists at the Western Washington University in America found that mobile phones were more of a distraction than MP3 players. In one study, where mobile phone users were asked if they had noticed a brightly coloured clown riding around on a unicycle while they were walking along, a remarkable 75% said they hadn't.

It was a particularly vivid illustration of inattentional blindness, especially since the clown was dressed in garish purple and yellow.

Nor is the problem limited to the iPhone generation. A recent study from the Pew Research Center in America found that adults were just as likely as teens to have texted while driving.

It found that 75% of mobile-phone owning adults had spoken on their phones while driving, and that nearly half - 47% - had sent or read a text at the wheel. Away from their cars, one in six adults admitted to bumping into either a fellow pedestrian or an object because they were so engrossed in talking or texting on their phones.

Australia has long been in the forefront of road safety campaigns. Victoria was the first jurisdiction to bring in seat belt legislation. Random breath-testing is the norm.

And strict restrictions are placed on "P-plate drivers," who have only recently passed their tests. This limits the power of their car's engine and how many passengers they can carry at prescribed times of the day.

Now the police are paying increasing attention to the pedestrians who do not appear to be doing so.

A selection of your comments:

Maybe it's time to regard users of iPods and the like in public, be it joggers, roller bladers, cyclists, skateboarders, pedestrians or whoever with the same disdain as right-minded people view drink-drivers - an inconsiderate danger to all those around them. With their sensory awareness dulled, iPod users are just as much a threat to the safety of others as boozed-up motorists.

Steve Garnsey, London, UK

A while back I watched a guy wearing dark glasses, holding a coffee with one hand, while texting with the other, walk into a No Parking sign. All in all, it was pretty funny. Not long after that, I saw a guy on a skateboard cruising down a long hill-texting in traffic, while looking down, of course. Didn't see how that came out.

Charles Taylor, San Francisco, US

In Nairobi, they have just enacted laws prohibiting crossing any street while using a mobile phone. Enforcing the law is another matter, but far too many drivers have earphones stuck to their ears and I secretly wonder how they able to concentrate in the chaotic traffic

Patrick Kariuki, Nairobi, Kenya

There have been at least four deaths reported in downtown Toronto in the last six months due to people distracted from their surroundings while connected to iPhones or other similar devices. One girl walked directly into the side of a 53 foot truck while speaking on her cell phone and was crushed under the back wheels. Time for people to smarten up and not try & block out what goes on around them.

Steve Davis, Toronto, Canada

Using headphones while travelling is a regular occurrence here in Thailand, only they prefer to partake in this ludicrous act while driving a motorbike and at the same time switching lanes at high speed and weaving into the smallest space imaginable. As they say ignorance is bliss.

Martin Gordon, Chiang Mai, Thailand

I used to walk into street lights all the time. Of course, that was when I read books or newspapers while walking. Now I listen to my iPod and I find I run into far fewer streetlights. A safety guide I recently saw also said that I shouldn't be talking to my daughter while I drive, because of "divided attention." Should I also ignore her while I walk?

Jim, Chicago, USA

A couple of weeks ago a woman walked straight off the footpath infront of my bike, eyes glued to her phone as she SMSed away. I hit the brakes, slid to a stop, yelled out loud. She leapt about a metre straight up then landed and started yelling at me "Look where you're going!".


Adrian, Melbourne, Australia

Yes, only this morning when I was taking my daughter to school a young woman who was plugged into her iPod walked straight into the road in front of my car without looking either way.

Cazza, Ellesmere Port, England

The bigger problem is drivers using their iPOD......I've seen too many people driving with earphones in and I've wondered how on earth they can be ware of anything else.

Chris Alexander, Chester

As a cyclist, one of the things that annoys me most (and is very dangerous for both parties!) is pedestrians meandering all over the place, crossing roads without looking, stepping into cycle lanes, all becuase they are utterly oblivious to the world around them with a pair of headphones on.

Worse still, I actually hit someone a few weeks back when they stepped into the cycle lane without looking - and they had the utter cheek to accuse me of being in the wrong! Shouting at them is no use, either, a they can't hear!

Stuart, Lancaster, England

Why isn't the same effect seen in drivers listening to 'normal' car radios?

Tony Bradley, Plymouth UK

The same result is not seen in car drivers listening to the radio is because you can still hear what is going on around you as well as the music/chat. The headphones are designed to block out all other sounds. I have never understood how cyclists can listen to headphones whilst cycling. Cycling on our roads is dangerous enought without deliberately cutting off one of your senses.

Kathleen, Scotland

As a cyclist who commutes to work daily through the central parts of town I couldn't imagine wearing headphones whilst travelling. I use my hearing to know where cars are almost as much as I do my eye sight! Not to mention that on a number of occassions over the last couple of years I have nearly had accidents because another cyclist was plugged in really makes me loathe that particular use.

Ragnar, Nottingham, UK

There's nothing inherently dangerous about walking along with an iPod. So where does the danger come from? If they want to reduce road fatalities, they need to deal with their addiction to the motor vehicle. Australia mirrors the UK in having high levels of car-dependency, and rock-bottom levels of healthy and civilised personal transport like cycling. If we want civilised roads, we should ignore Australia and look to continental Europe, particularly Holland, where every effort is made to separate pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles, and give the former priority.

Ian Henderson, Surbiton, UK

Can't agree more with the Victoria police on this point.

I cycle commute through London everyday and find myself constantly avoiding pedestrians (and other cyclists) using Iphones/pods as they step out blissfully unaware. Appart from the obvious distraction factor I think the key point is that your hearing has a profound effect on your spacial awareness. block that sense off and you really have very little idea of what's happening around you.

Stuart, Brighton UK

Guilty as charged- iPod in and texting while cycling along. However, I only do it when the road is straight, flat, and nothing's likely to change. To be honest, I think many of my generation will continue to do this kind of thing until we have a near miss or an accident. There's also the awareness that I can be as alert and visible as I like, but my life will still lie in the hands of the bus drivers!

Rowan, Bristol