How one town's 'Don't Walk(man)' message is faring

At the end of the first month of enforcing a ban against wearing headphones in the streets, the score stands: Woodbridge, N.J., 1; Oscar Gross, 0.

The town also has received one irate letter from a resident and several hundred inquiries from other US communities about its ordinance, which is aimed at preventing people from listening to their portable tape players and radios - such as the Sony ''Walkman'' - while crossing the street.

These portable entertainment units require their owners to wear headphones in order to listen to the music. The headphones, argue the ordinance's proponents, cut down on the listener's ability to hear car horns and other warning devices.

Mr. Gross has the distinction of being the first person handed a summons under the ordinance.

''I'm proud to say I got the first summons,'' he said, after refusing to move his headphones while crossing a Main Street intersection. To make his point, his headphones were not attached to a tape recorder or radio when he wore them.

''In my opinion the ordinance is unconstitutional because it forbids wearing what a person sees fit whenever he wants,'' explained Gross to watching members of the press.

Aside from Gross, only one other person has complained about the ordinance, says Woodbridge Police Chief Anthony O'Brien. One woman wrote a letter complaining that the ban violated her constitutional rights.

''Other than that, most people have been very positive about the whole thing, '' says Chief O'Brien. ''They see headphones as a potential danger. It is not what has happened but what could happen. It is only in the past year they (the headphones) have really taken off.''

Richard Kuzniak, the Woodbridge councilor behind the ban, explains what he says he sees as the danger. He says he noticed drivers, cyclists, joggers, and walkers wearing headsets.

''I was concerned that they could not hear horns or any outside warning noise ,'' he says. ''It wasn't just dangerous for them but for other people on the street.''

''I have been asked to talk about it (the ordinance) everywhere on television and radio from Florida to Brazil and even by the British BBC. Already 200 communities have asked for copies of the ordinance - including New York,'' adds Mr. Kuzniak. ''A lot of councils are seriously considering bringing in a similar ordinance.''

Bill Baker, spokesman for Sony, the inventor and leading manufacturer of personal portable stereos, says he prefers education to legislation in dealing with the problem.

The firm is trying to prevent bans like Woodbridge's from spreading around America. It's launching a major media campaign aimed at educating portable personal-stereo users.

''We are preparing a public-service announcement for radio and television on the do's and don'ts of these sets. This is our response. Education not legislation is going to be more useful,'' says Mr. Baker.

''The owner's manuals do in fact suggest that people be cautious in hazardous situations and switch to a mix sound that allows external noises to be heard as well as the stereo.

''But anyway there is no evidence to show they are dangerous. It is all supposition.''

Not so, says Kuzniak, who claims four people have been killed wearing the sets.

Joanna Speller, a dancer in New York, is one of the millions who own a portable tape player.

''I don't wear them as much as I used to,'' she says. ''It was a great novelty at first. But wherever you wear them the headphones are a block, and I don't feel I always want to hide behind them. Particularly after last week.''

At that time, she says, she was mugged coming out of a subway. ''After that I would rather be alert at all times. You don't always know what is going on around you when you have them on.''

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