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Why headphones are hazardous to your health

No, not because of ear damage. A new study finds that serious injuries to headphone-using pedestrians have more than tripled since 2004.

Several new headphones exhibited at CES last week featured an ambient noise boost, by which the user is able to hear the surrounding world without removing the 'phones. Such a feature may not only prove convenient--it could also save lives, according to a new study tracking headphone-related pedestrian injuries and deaths.

An accident waiting to happen? Ed Yourdon/Flickr

Serious injuries to pedestrians who are listening to headphones more than tripled between 2004 and 2011, researchers from the University of Maryland report in the journal Injury Prevention.

The team analyzed case reports from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Google News Archives, and Westlaw Campus Research databases to measure pedestrian injuries and fatalities involving either motor vehicles or trains, and focused on those cases involving headphones. (Note: they were unable to rule out suicides in which the "accident" was in fact intentional.)

Of the 116 accidents involving pedestrians listening to headphones, a whopping 70 percent ended in pedestrian death. Also, roughly 70 percent were males under the age of 30, and more than half of the accidents involved trains.

This form of distraction-by-device has been studied for years now and is dubbed "inattentional blindness," where the brain's resources are divided by multiple stimuli. Remember the cell-phone-talking pedestrians who missed the unicycling clown?

Of course, distractions need not be of the strictly electronic variety. A gorgeous woman can also produce inattentional blindness given a receptive pedestrian.

It's worth tempering this news with the reminder that the three-fold increase was still found in a relatively small number of accidents, fewer than 100 of which were fatal over a six-year period. The takeaway is clear: if pedestrians limit headphone and/or cell phone use while walking near motor vehicles and trains, they'll be less likely to be seriously injured or killed. Not to mention free to be distracted by gorgeous women and unicycling clowns.