Headphone Safety: What’s Sensible?

The recent tragic case of a Victorian schoolgirl struck by a train while listening to music highlights the tricky area of personal responsibility versus legal policy. What’s a sensible rule of thumb for listening to music in public?

The Age reports on the very sad case of a schoolgirl killed by a train while listening to music. I’ve got to say upfront, I’m not looking for comment specifically on that case; I think it’d be highly insensitive and inappropriate to do so.

But what it does bring to the forefront is the tricky issue of what your personal and legal responsibilities when wearing headphones in public are or should be. I’m a big fan of listening to music while I walk; not only is it enjoyable but it’s also a very convenient social barrier, making you invisible to the general public. Don’t believe me? Walk past charity/survey types on a busy city street without headphones, and they’ll try to stop you every time. Do the same thing with headphones in (even if you’re not listening to anything in particular) and you’ll generally be overlooked. Your friends and social colleagues will still stop you, but generally not total strangers. Call me introverted if you must, but there are times when I rather like that.

It rather surprised me to discover (via this SMH story) that it’s not actually illegal to drive while wearing headphones, although NSW head of police traffic command, Chief Superintendent John Hartley is quoted as saying in that story that it’s “not advisable”. I’d agree with that; in fact I think I’d favour actually making it illegal while driving, simply because your hearing is a good safety tool as part of your overall driving skills package.

Walking is different, though. You're not pushing forward thousands of kilos of metal and plastic at high speed; even the most heavy set of folks will only be pushing forward a few hundred at worst. Earlier in the year New York city lawmakers suggested a ban on headphones on city streets. I tend to think that’s taking things too far in a controlled policy direction.

At the same time, there’s a risk both to yourself and to others to weigh up -- not just those you bump into, but in the case of tragedy, others involved in that tragedy, such as bus or train drivers. We’ve previously discussed whether it’s rude to talk with headphones on and whether you should share earbuds -- what’s everyone’s opinion on the issue of public headphone safety? Image: Presleyjesus

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