'Drop those headphones!' Lawmakers take a look at the Walkman
Be on the lookout for ''outlaws in headphones'' on the streets of New Jersey's Woodbridge Township. They are the men and women who bike, jog, or drive to the sound of music from their lightweight, clip-to-the-hip tape players.
Wearing headphones while jogging, bicycling, or driving has been outlawed in the nine communities that make up Woodbridge. Offenders can be fined up to $50 or land in jail for up to 15 days.
Woodbridge is not alone. Lawmakers in several other areas of the country, concerned about the risks drivers or runners take by blocking out the sound of oncoming traffic, are planning to create a lot of static about the devices.
At the state level, the New Jersey Assembly is considering a bill that would make ''any person wearing ear plugs for the purpose of listening to music or to a radio while operating a motor vehicle upon a public road or highway'' subject to ''a $75 fine for the first offense and a fine for a subsequent offense of $ 150.''
In Washington, D.C., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received complaints about headphones being worn on federal highways. According to a government spokesman, the NHTSA may soon begin its own study of the safety issues involved.
In Connecticut, a bill is expected to be introduced soon. Illinois is one of several states (including Pennsylvania) that already have laws making it illegal to wear headphones while driving. But Chicago Alderman Louis J. Farina and others say these are not enforced and need to be handled on the local level.
Last June Farina introduced a bill in the City Council to prohibit wearing headphones on city streets. The bill, which passed the council's traffic and safety committee by 10 to 0, ran into opposition from the electronics industry, which holds it annual convention in Chicago. So the bill was tabled.
Now Farina says he will reintroduce the bill shortly. (He may even amend it to include the wearing of wrist-watch television, which he says may be on the market in the next year).
Personal experience has persuaded Farina that headphones can be dangerous. Last year he almost hit a cyclist who said he did not hear Farina's horn because he was listening to rock music on his headphones.
Opponents like Joseph Holsman, supervisor of traffic safety regulations for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, argue that although it's ''certainly going to be more safe if you don't have them (headphones) on,'' safe drivers will seldom need to sound their horns.
New Jersey Assemblyman Charles Hardwick opposes the pending state law on the grounds that it would be unenforceable.
William E. Baker, spokesman for the Sony Corporation of America, manufacturers of the Walkman, says that it was designed so that the headphones go over - not in - the ear. Outside sounds are audible.
Baker acknowledges that ''it's possible to turn it (the Walkman) up loud enough to overcome ambient sound.'' But he stresses that the company knew of not a single accident that has even been attributed to wearing a Walkman (a registered trademark). More than 4.5 million Walkmans have been sold worldwide since 1979.
In New York City, many argue that street noises are so loud that banning headphones from the streets would have no effect on the accident rate and would, like jay-walking, be just another unenforceable law on the books.