It seems that people want music with them wherever they go. Joggers with their earbuds, ambient music in shopping centres and, our last bastion of freedom, in the car. In fact, many people consume the majority of their music in the car and modern cars come with options that makes them more powerful than your stereo at home. For example, you’ve got the traditional radio and CD player (although, some cars are doing away with CD players now), but you can also connect your smartphone using Bluetooth or USB to stream internet radio, you can plug a USB-based MP3 player or even just a memory stick in, some vehicles have a built-in hard disk or flash memory, and more and more vehicles are coming with direct app integrations for Pandora and others. If your car doesn’t have any of this you can always plug in your headphones and drive along.
The question is whether listening to music is distracting or whether it keeps you alert and makes you less likely to have an accident. We see in the accident statistics that accidents caused by adjusting the radio are reported and are common, and by ‘adjusting the radio’ this means changing the volume, switching between stations, changing a CD, scrolling through MP3 files – basically anything that involves you fiddling with the controls.
What we haven’t known, though, is whether your choice of music has an influence in the accident risk. A study by Brodsky and Slor assessed 85 novice drivers with an average age of 17, all of whom had only had their licence for less than 7 months. The drivers each complete six trips in a learner’s vehicle with dual controls. Two trips were taken with music of their choice, two with music of the researchers’ choice and two without music.
All aspects of the driver’s performance was monitored. Every driver had at least 3 deficiencies (e.g. tailgating, inappropriate speed, failure to indicate, etc), 17 needed a steering or braking intervention by the supervisor to avoid an accident, and 27 needed a verbal warning or command.
The interesting finding was that when the drivers listened to their choice of music their driving became more aggressive and they were much more likely to have an accident – the most popular choice of music was dance/techno/trance. When they listened to no music they had less risk, but when they listened to the music chosen for them by the researchers, they had even less risk.
The main issue with that study was that it was only with novice drivers that were inexperienced. Ideally the process should be repeated with experienced drivers because another study in 2012 by Unal, Steg and Epstude looked at the influence of music on mental effort and driving performance. It came up with a slightly different result. Participants drove in a simulator either with or without music in a simulated traffic environment that had a mix of both complex and monotonous situations.
The drivers had to verbally report what they were doing (essentially a ‘commentary drive‘) and the researchers deduced that loud music increases the mental effort while driving in any situation but that drivers who listen to music perform as well as drivers that didn’t listen to music. The authors acknowledge that more study is required.
We know from other studies that any distraction in a car, like talking on a mobile phone or smoking while driving, increases your risk of having an accident (in general), but it seems like there is conflicting research as to whether music is a distraction, a help, or simply varies according to the type of person.