Friday, November 2, 2007

Pay Attention: USA Track & Field Is Right to Ban iPods at Races

The New York Times reports that marathoners are up in arms about bans on iPods and other portable music players at road races.

According to The Times, the national governing body for running, USA Track & Field, banned the devices "to ensure safety and to prevent runners from having a competitive edge."

I don't care about the competitive edge argument -- I'll leave that debate to the running community -- but they're dead on about safety: No one should use a device that blocks hearing when they're running on public roads or trails, or when they're running in a crowd. You need to be able to hear.

I don't know what problems the race organizers have found -- The Times story was short on specifics -- but I can make some guesses. People oblivious to other people around them can cause collisions in a crowd. You can't hear shouted instructions when you've got your music turned up. And stragglers who end up running more or less alone toward the end of the race won't be able to hear cars whose drivers aren't aware the marathon is still going.

But the most important reason to ban these devices at races is to encourage people to stop using them when they train on their own. It's very dangerous to wear earphones running down city streets or on hike and bike trails. You can't hear the cars, you can't hear the bicyclists, you can't hear people yelling something at you, and you really can't hear muggers. Given that marathoners in particular are putting in a lot of miles, they're likely to be running before sunrise or after sunset, so they're already at a disadvantage.

People have been attacked -- raped and even murdered -- when running on a trail. The risk is there. You don't want to increase the risk by blocking your hearing.

The Times article quoted a woman who suggested that if they banned iPods, they should ban deaf runners. But that's disingenuous. In the first place, people with hearing problems develop strategies so that they can take in extra information through other senses, while people with regular hearing who block it don't have those same skills.

Secondly, accommodating those who have no choice about their ability to hear (or see or use their legs) is not the same as accommodating those who just want a soundtrack for their lives.

Save your iPods for running on the treadmill or inside track at your gym. But when you're out on streets or trails -- whether you're racing or training -- leave them at home. Blocking your hearing puts you at unnecessary risk. It's just that simple.

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