A spike in fatal accidents involving pedestrians, cyclists and others who were listening to digital music players has public safety experts urging Washingtonians to turn off their iPods and tune in to potential danger.
"It's a very pernicious form of distraction," AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend said. "Very few of us can drive and chew gum at the same time."
The problem was illustrated graphically on Hilton Head Island, S.C., Monday, when jogger Robert Gary Jones was crushed by an airplane making an emergency landing. Jones was listening to his iPod and apparently didn't hear the plane as it struggled to land.
At least three people in the Washington region have died in accidents in the last year, while wearing headphones.
Earlier this month, jogger Debra Schiebel, 51, was struck and killed by a semi tractor-trailer while crossing Constitution Avenue. Witnesses said Schiebel, wearing earphones, was crossing against the light.
In January, 14-year-old Ann Marie Stickel died after being hit by an Amtrak train as she walked to school. Witnesses said she was listening to an iPod or similar device and crossed onto the track in front of the train without having heard it.
Kristen Stormer, 23, of Pennsylvania, was struck and killed while cycling in Ocean City in June. Witnesses said she, too, was wearing headphones before the accident.
Digital players are relatively new, so there are few official studies citing a link between earphones and fatal accidents. Still, cities all over the world are ringing alarm bells. Late last year, London authorities began issuing dire warnings about "iPod zombies" after an increase in cyclists' deaths. San Francisco adopted a multimillion-dollar media blitz warning walkers about the dangers of their headphones.
"Do you want Beethoven to be the last thing you hear?" one of the ads asked.
Besides being a fatal distraction for pedestrians, police also warn that they're a magnet for criminals.
"It's definitely attractive to thieves and people wanting to do bad things," said Alexandria police Sgt. Mike Kochis, president of the city's police union.
Kochis described being on an undercover surveillance operation, hoping to find a man who had been attacking female joggers in Alexandria and Fairfax. Staking out a prime spot in a woodsy area, Kochis said he was horrified to see how many passers-by were wearing headphones.
"If you have your headphones on, it's one of your senses that you can't use to stay alert," Kochis said. "They're in their own world."
The most notorious case in the region was the death of retired New York Times journalist David Rosenbaum. In mid-January 2006, Rosenbaum went out for a stroll to take advantage of unseasonably warm weather. He was wearing his iPod headphones, and two men snuck up on him and beat him with a pipe. Rosenbaum's assailants would later brag that they "caught [him] sleeping."
The lesson, Townsend said, couldn't be clearer: Turn that racket down.
"You could easily become street pizza," he said. "While tuning in their iPods, they tune out the world. In the process, they become inattentive to traffic and to road conditions. That's dangerous, to say the least."