Listening to loud music while driving can be distracting but some studies suggest certain types of music might help concentration.
We all love listening to our favourite tunes in the car. The question is, do we drive any more erratically or dangerously while doing so? Well, there is no simple answer. In fact there isn’t enough data to give a definitive answer at all.
Some seem to think that volume is the key factor to the distraction while others say that it’s how much you like the song you’re listening to that plays the biggest part. In this blog post, we take a look at the various tests and opinions out there and try to find a happy medium.
Grimmy’s BAD driving experiment
Much loved Radio 1 DJ and X-Factor judge, Nick “Grimmy” Grimshaw, conducted a practical driving experiment with Brad from the Vamps. Grimmy wanted to see if Brad (who doesn’t yet have a drivers licence) would make more mistakes when reverse parking if they were listening to loud “Radio 1” style music. While not the most scientific of tests, you can plainly see a debilitating effect when the music is blaring… and the dancing probably doesn’t help. Check out the video below!
So as you can see, the volume was high and both of the guys clearly liked the songs being played. In terms of volume, a test conducted by the Memorial University in Canada found that there was a direct link between volume and reaction time – no matter what kind of music or the drivers preference. In fact, at 95 decibels, reaction times increased by 20 per cent across the board.
Loud music slows reaction times
As the volume of music increases in the car, your brain tends to devote more of its attention to the words, rhythm and sounds coming from the speakers. This means attention is taken away from the road and your surroundings. Obviously this also means you will struggle to hear the sirens of emergency vehicles and the sounds of your cars engine and transmission.
On average, most drivers have a reaction time of 3/4 of a second which means if a car is travelling at 60MPH, it will travel a further 66 feet before braking and slowing even takes place. Theoretically, If you couple this with listening to music which is above 95 decibels, the distance before braking takes place increases to around 79 feet.
While that isn’t a direct conclusion that loud music causes erratic or dangerous driving, it shows that it can prevent you stopping in time to prevent a collision and it opens up a whole other bag of tricks that, frankly, you could do without.
This all comes down to sheer volume though and technically, it doesn’t even need to be music. If the sound of the engine inside the cabin exceeded 95 decibels you would have similar increases in reaction times.
One test outlined in Dr Warren Brodsky’s book “Driving With Music: Cognitive-Behavioural Implications” actually showed that drivers listening to familiar music at reasonable volume levels display faster reaction times when reacting to lead cars accelerating or braking in front of them. It also outlined that the same drivers reaction times increased (got worse) in a scenario where a parked car would pull out into the road.
Clearly there is a number of factors that would determine your driving performance but what we can take away from this – 95 decibels is too loud!
How music affects your brain
Stripping things back to basics, it’s important to note how music affects your brain in general. Our sense of rhythm derives from listening to our mothers heart beat while we grow in the womb. Coupled with our own heartbeats, you can see why rhythm and bass speaks to you on levels you don’t even notice. Your brain devotes attention to it whether you like it or not.
This is why when we listen to a song, our own heart beats will try to fall in sync with the tempo. If you’re driving while listening to drum and bass for example, you will likely end up with sweaty palms, a faster heartbeat and differences in driving style. Check out this video below for a full explanation.
As you can see, music has deeper routed connections to you and your behaviour than you might have previously thought and it’s not just the volume that does it to you. Check out this graph for further evidence.
This graph shows the link between the tempo of the song being listened too and the likelihood to jump a red light. As you can see, the trend is a clear one. 120 – 140bpm (beats per minute) is the tempo someone is most likely to jump a red light to (in this test).
Most “house” or “EDM” tunes are played at 128bpm and the more hardcore club/electric music is played at around 140bpm. Unsurprisingly, the music your mum hates is also the most likely to stimulate you enough to take big risks like jumping red lights or overtaking other cars when you probably shouldn’t.
What can we take from this? Fast paced music is going to mess with you while you drive.
The style of music is important
In Dr Bodsky’s book, he talks about another test carried out in the 70s where a group of 12 people each went through various “signal-detection” exercises with half of them listening to “rock” music at 70 decibels and the other half listening to “easy listening” at 70 decibels. He says “The analyses pointed to a main effect for Genre…, indicating that signal detection was significantly better with Rock music than Easy Listening music. Namely, participants listening to Rock Music demonstrated a heightened awareness that facilitated their responses to changes in the environment. A second main effect surfaced for Temporal Schedule…, indicating that more correct responses were made when signals were presented at random intervals. (Rock music group) – page 247: Driving With Music: Cognitive-Behavioural Implications
So, with less of the Doctor speak, listening to Nickleback at 70 decibels genuinely does improve your reaction times in certain circumstances like irregular flowing traffic. Excellent! The test also outlined that Easy Listening music can slow your reaction times, especially on monotonous drives where not much is happening. That certainly goes against the grain.
What can we take from this? If you’re going for a long drive or you know there is some busy traffic ahead, keep safe and don’t listen to Moby!
Shhh! I’m trying to park!
Ever noticed how we always seem to wince and turn down the volume when squeezing around other cars at slow speeds, getting close to home or parking into tight spots? Well, this is because when our brains listen to music, it turns down the signals we get from visual stimuli. Although you might not notice that your brain is doing this, it’s kind of like switching down from 1080p HD quality visuals to 420p with restricted peripheral vision. It’s an unconscious effort your brain gives regardless of your intentions.
In order to perform the manoeuvres and devote the level of visual focus required, you need your 1080p back and so you turn down the volume. Two other factors that would hamper your brains focus on visual stimuli are fatigue and depression as these conditions take a heavy toll on your attention capacity and processing power. So if you’re tired or feeling particularly low, you won’t need to be told to turn the music down as it will probably be exhausting for you to focus on anything at all.
What can we take from this? The brain restricts the signals it pays attention to depending on your mood, energy levels and audible cues. Try and keep the tunes low if your tired or depressed!
To summarise – there is no black and white answer as to whether music helps or hinders your driving. There are so many variables that a lot of it comes down to driving experience and common sense. However there are a few points to consider…