Sounds of the times

People are distracted. We’ve developed methods to shut down our deeper cognitive processes in almost any situation. We crave superficial mental stimulation at all times, even when the distraction is dangerous to us. We’ve proven this with our addiction to texting while driving. Our unfounded belief that we can multitask was bad enough when it was just twisting the knob on the FM radio, but now we write entire tomes on a touch keyboard the size of a pack of playing cards. And it appears that even when faced with statistics that show that distracted driving is nearly as dangerous as drinking and driving, we continue doing it. Stone sober people make the decision to put others at risk in the exact same way as the drunkest of barflies.

In fact, that arrogance of “it can’t happen to me” may give some insight as to why it’s so hard to curtail drunk driving. Massive, life-changing consequences of getting caught intoxicated behind the wheel have barely impacted the likelihood of encountering a drunk driver on the road. What are the odds that fines of $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second and $250 for subsequent violations are going to stop people from grabbing their phone when it buzzes or plays a favorite ringtone?

As anyone who lives and drives in Northern Nevada can attest, not at all.

According to the Nevada Department of Transportation, “There are more than 3,500 distraction-related crashes in Nevada every year, and more than 60 deaths in the past five years. Across the nation in 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.”

So let’s throw another variable into the pileup. This week, internet journal Injury Prevention presented a study that showed that triple the number of headphone-wearing pedestrians have been seriously hurt or killed near roadways and railways in the last six years. The pay-for-full-view article can be found at http://injuryprevention.bmj.com.

The results are telling: “There were 116 reports of death or injury of pedestrians wearing headphones. The majority of victims were male (68 percent) and under the age of 30 (67 percent). The majority of vehicles involved in the crashes were trains (55 percent), and 89 percent of cases occurred in urban counties. Seventy-four percent of case reports stated that the victim was wearing headphones at the time of the crash. Many cases (29 percent) mentioned that a warning was sounded before the crash.”

(Just as a side note, people who were around before the train trench will recall the frequency of drunken pedestrians being killed on those tracks near downtown Reno. When’s the last time you heard about one of those?)

Our advice is simple. Walkers, joggers and bicycle riders, too, should not fill both ears with sound that can drown out important auditory clues about surrounding danger. At most, wear one earbud and keep the sound levels down. What you hear when you’re near a road or railway is often more important than what you see.

Please, put your cell phone away. Don’t wait for Big Brother to install a cell phone disabling device in your vehicles after your second offense. (The technology does exist, even if the law doesn’t—yet.) And by the way, if we miss another left-turn arrow while somebody updates their Facebook status to “wating@lite,” there’s no telling what we’ll do.