Banning the Walkman: what does it mean?

Thirty miles south of New York City lies a town which apparently holds three records in matters pertaining to vehicular traffic.

Woodbridge Township, N.J., boasts the first cloverleaf interchange ever built in the United States. It may also lay claim to being one of nation's most visited and least remembered towns. The New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway intersect at that cloverleaf. So millions of us have been there - though we had no idea it was Woodbridge.

But the latest record will surely eclipse the others. Woodbridge, following a unanimous vote by its town council in July, is now The Town that Banned the Walkman.

The Walkman, like Woodbridge itself, is something many have seen but fewer, perhaps, recognize. It is, in fact, Sony Corporation's trade name for those increasingly popular stereo tape cassette players sold by various companies. Battery-powered, held in the hand or fastened to a belt, they deliver their gorgeous stereophonic sound through tiny earphones. Cocooning you in your own little music world, they leave you free to walk, jog, run, cycle, or drive at will.

Unless, that is, you happen to want to do these things in Woodbridge. The town fathers have nothing against music, or electronics, or stereo. Their objection is to the headphones. They have laid down a law prohibiting the use of them on the town's streets.

''I think it's a distraction,'' says Township Council president Robert F. Gawroniak. He no doubt has visions of motorists, doped in accoustical anaesthesia, gliding blithely past the screech of brakes and other loud warnings. He foresees, I suspect, a community full of the auditory counterparts of The Nearsighted Mr. Magoo.

In fact, Mr. Gawroniak's argument centers on safety. He wants to prevent accidents rather than react to them. ''It's a shame that you have to have the horse run away before you lock the door,'' he says, his metaphor appropriately reflecting Woodbridge's fascination with all sorts of transportation. Last month, state officials essentially approved the ordinance, which should be in effect by early October. ''We think we're on the right track,'' he told me, slipping into yet another vehicular metaphor. He may be right. Woodbridge officials have seen what he calls ''fantastic'' interest from other municipalities around the country. A number of states, including Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, already outlaw headphones on drivers.

But Woodbridge goes further, putting the arm on pedestrians and cyclists as well.

Not, however, without an outcry. New Jersey has a reputation for its commitment to home rule. Garden Staters bristle at interference from any sort of government. ''Who are they to tell us whether we can wear headphones or not?'' one Woodbridge jogger asked a New York Times reporter the other day. It's a classic individual-rights-versus-governmental-authority issue.

So far, the industry is keeping a very low profile. Spokesman Fred Wahlstrom at Sony (which has sold 5 million of the devices worldwide and sees no fall-off from the Woodbridge Effect) says it will wait and see how the law works. He predicts a court test, and questions the authority of the Township Council. ''We feel it's basically a question of individual rights,'' he says.

What does it all mean?

Well, one hesitates to put too broad an interpretation upon it. Maybe the Walkman fad isn't particularly important. Maybe it doesn't much matter that music, until now a communal thing, has suddenly become wholly private. Perhaps no one worries that great groups of people will all be moving (quite literally) to different drummers. Maybe it's not a sign of the breakdown of intercommunication, the isolation of man from his environment, and the surrender of consciousness to outside manipulation.

Don't get me wrong: I am no rank earphonophobe. I see the machine's potential. One can imagine learners of languages or lovers of great books making fine use of it. But why should the earphone craze have seized us at this time?

Surely it is not that the music is so beautiful, nor that technology is so advanced, nor that tapes are so cheap. What lies underneath it?

I suppose, if I had to finger one culprit, I'd point to what seems an increasing misunderstanding of the value of solitude. These devices, after all, allow you to imagine that you are not alone.

''I am not merely running down this city street or this country lane,'' says the wired-up jogger. ''I am grooving to my own favorite group. I no longer have to content myself with my own thinking. Ah, no. I am not alone. This is LIFE!''

And that, deep down, may be what rankles in Woodbridge. The city fathers may think they are merely freeing their curbs and highways from the ravages of the oblivious. But underneath, ironically, they may be defending, not attacking, individuality. Theirs may be an almost instinctual rebellion against the great mental drift. They have come to the defense of solitude. In their own quiet moments, perhaps they have grasped that solitude breeds thought, and that only from thought does individuality arise.

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