An increasing number of people constantly connected to their phone or iPod via earbuds while walking, biking, and even driving may seem harmless enough, or even a considerate act on the user’s part by not forcing everyone else to listen to their music; however, in reality, it’s a dangerous habit – and not just because of potential damage to your hearing. Many people have forgotten their days of driver education, in which you are taught that it is illegal to drive or even bike while wearing any form of headphones.
Virginia Code §46.2-1078 makes it illegal to operate a motor vehicle, bicycle, electric personal assisted mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, or moped while using earphones. Wearing headphones while driving is illegal because they render you unable to hear other traffic, car horns and possibly even emergency vehicles with sirens blaring. This is especially dangerous as emergency vehicles often have to go through red lights and intersections where someone else may otherwise have the right of way.
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Having multiple stimuli dividing one’s attention is referred to as “inattentional blindness,” and is intensified by the sensory deprivation caused by headphones. Your brain’s attention becomes focused on the noise coming in from the headphones, to the point of ignoring other auditory and even visual information coming in. This distraction is just as dangerous as talking on a cell phone or texting while driving. Under Virginia law, earphones are defined as “any device worn on or in both ears that converts electrical energy to sound waves or which impairs or hinders the person’s ability to hear . . .” The only exception to this rule would be any type of device that enhances your ability to hear (e.g. hearing aids).
These same dangers hold true for bicyclists and pedestrians, who have a greater risk of injury because they don’t have the physical protection a car provides. According to a study by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, the number of pedestrian injuries related to headphone use has increased 300% in the past six years, and 70% of those people died as a result of their injuries. Most happened in urban areas and a majority of the victims were males under thirty.
Taking every possible precaution and being aware of your surroundings, whether you are walking, biking, or driving, is extremely important in order to prevent serious injury. Even though pedestrians have the right of way in most cases, in the end being “right” is little comfort when someone is injured or killed.