The death of 21-year-old Priya Jain, hit by a bike and then a bus while crossing the busy Vikas Marg road on Wednesday, is a wake-up call to the dangers of ‘iPod oblivion’ – walking on the road with earphones, listening to music or simply talking.
Priya, police said, had ear-plugs on while crossing the road on her way to work. That may well have been the crucial difference between life and death in her case. Experts say walking with earphones causes ‘cognitive overload’ which shuts out the world around the wearer and makes the person blind to danger.
With hand-held devices becoming more and more common around the world, this is being recognized as a major threat on the roads in the US, Australia and other countries, perhaps second only to using the cellphone while driving.
Closer home, Priya’s is not an isolated case. A few months back in the capital, a man returning from a night shift early in the morning with headphones on, stepped right in the way of a car and lost his life. While the incident was reported, the fact that the man’s headphones could have caused the accident, was not.
Walking on the road with earphones, listening to music or simply talking can be dangerous. There are countless close calls every day but the issue hasn’t drawn the attention it deserves.
That’s not the case in the US, where for some time now, legislators have unsuccessfully attempted to introduce laws banning use of headphones while walking, with evidence growing that many accidents can be avoided if pedestrians stop using earphones.
Dr M C Misra, chief of AIIMS Trauma Centre, points out that 50% of road accident deaths in the city are that of pedestrians and use of hand-held devices while crossing the road or walking in the carriageway was definitely a contributing factor.
“Listening to music or talking on the phone while crossing the road is dangerous. It diverts attention and causes a hearing deficit. The pedestrian is often not able to comprehend warning signals like honking or someone simply crying out,” he says. He adds that in the capital where pavements are encroached upon or are simply not there, people are forced to walk on the road and distraction for even a second can put one’s life at risk.
“The Motor Vehicle Act does not have any provision to prosecute the pedestrian,” says Rohit Baluja, president, Institute of Road Traffic Education. “There are no statistics that tell you when a pedestrian is at fault and most often the vehicle owner is booked. But no one can deny that the increased use of cellphones to call up, text or mail while crossing the road is one of the causes of these accidents. Dr J D Mukherjee, neurologist at Max Hospital, Saket, says people who are talking on the phone while walking or listening to music are not able to respond to an emergency situation appropriately.
A study published in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Safety Research in the US on the use of cellphone by pedestrians highlighted the problem. It showed that people busy on the phone did look both ways before crossing but didn’t seem to be any safer. Compared with people who crossed without any distraction, people on the phone were delayed and incurred risks. In a simulation, some even got hit by a virtual car. Adults were as much to blame as teenagers, some other studies showed.
But Satyendra Garg, joint commissioner of traffic police, says prosecution is not the way out. “The number of pedestrians is huge. It’s not practical to catch every violator and prosecute. In my view, awareness campaigns to promote judicious use of cellphones and other devices is needed. The traffic police is working on these lines,” he claims.
Despite the danger, youngsters are not about to give up. “While listening to music like this, one feels cut off from the bustle. It’s relaxing and soothing,” says Fatima Akram, a BA Psychology (Hons) student at Jamia Milia Islamia University. Akhil Kumar, who studies at Amity University, says he listens to music while walking on the road but keeps the volume low. “Twice I landed right in front of heavy vehicles. Since then, I have become more alert,” he added.