If You Walk Around New York Wearing Headphones, Do You Deserve To Die?

09/16/2013 11:50 AM |

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Granted, no one’s making the argument that walking in one of the world’s busiest cities with headphones in and minimal awareness of your surroundings if the best idea for your general personal safety. I still remember a high school math teacher, scared by what he saw as an excess of hoodies and earbuds, giving our class a semi-effective lecture on the dangers of becoming “pod people” (it was cutting edge at the time, sort of). But even if wearing headphones renders you a little more likely to be mugged and a little less adept at dodging oncoming traffic, it probably shouldn’t be a guarantee that cars will just plow into you on the sidewalk, in broad daylight. Especially not if you happen to be a kid on your way to school.

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But, maybe that’s asking too much of everyone. Last week, after driver Francis-Aung Lu ran down five teenagers on a Queens sidewalk (the security footage of the incident is as terrible as it is baffling), their school principal responded to the incident by sending out a letter to I.S. 73 families warning that students should avoid wearing headphones or listening to music on their way to and from school. “All children must be encouraged to be aware of their surroundings when riding the bus or train and walking to and from the school building,” it says.

Which isn’t really a bad thing to remind everyone, and I guess it’s good to focus on the aspects of a situation over which you actually have some modicum of control. The principal’s not in the wrong here. But, even putting aside the fact that the victims in this case don’t appear to have been wearing headphones or doing anything that would invite an SUV to drive directly into into them at full speed in a public space specifically designated for pedestrians— and this is a lot to put aside—it feels like putting the focus on pedestrians is missing a larger point. Namely, New York’s ongoing, cartoonishly awful record when it comes to protecting drivers who maim and kill innocent pedestrians. Current laws make it surprisingly difficult to prosecute drivers for anything other than a clear-cut case of drunk driving, and even render it pretty easy to hit and run with only a minor slap on the wrist. Seems like tightening up these laws might do more to keep pedestrians alive than eschewing headphones ever could, but, I guess, one thing at a time. For now, one of the students involved in last week’s incident, a 13-year-old girl, remains in critical condition, and it remains to be seen whether or not Lu will be facing any charges at all.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.