Does Music Make You an Unsafe Driver?

Whether music is a help or a hindrance behind the wheel is a much-debated topic. Find out what the experts have to say.

Music and driving have gone together since the first car radio was introduced around 1930. What would a road trip be without tunes?

But, with so much talk about distracted driving, it might be time to reexamine this relationship. Studies have shown that having a phone conversation while driving is highly distracting, and we all know texting while driving is even worse. So listening to music must be distracting too, right?

Or is it?

Several studies have been done on this subject, and the results vary considerably.

Conclusion #1: Music you like is more distracting.

A recent Israeli study conducted by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found that teen drivers who listened to their preferred music made more driving errors. The 85 novice drivers each took 6 challenging road trips for approximately 40 minutes with an instructor. Music was played on 4 of the trips: 2 trips used songs from the driver’s own playlist, and 2 played a special mix of light jazz, soft rock, and easy listening designed by the researchers to enhance driver safety. The remaining 2 trips didn’t have any music.

When driving to their playlist, 98 percent of the drivers made serious mistakes (such as speeding, tailgating, or driving one-handed) versus 92 percent who made similar mistakes without music. Listening to the safe-driving music, however, decreased the rate of mistakes by 20 percent.

The researchers speculate that drivers listen more actively when they enjoy the music, which may cause them to pay less attention to the road.

Conclusion #2: Music actually improves concentration.

A Dutch study found that listening to music had no ill effect on driving ability. The drivers in the study, all between the ages of 19 and 25, were asked to make playlists of familiar songs they liked. That music was played as the subjects drove on a simulated road for 30 minutes in predictable, monotonous traffic. The results: they had no trouble following the car ahead of them, and they actually responded to changes in the lead car’s speed better than those who drove in silence. The music seemed to enhance the drivers’ energy and alertness. The study’s author was careful to note, however, that under stressful conditions, music might have a different effect.

Conclusion #3: It’s the volume that matters.

A study conducted by Memorial University in Newfoundland found that, no matter what kind of music was played, drivers’ reactions were slower when the volume was high. At 95 decibels (as loud as a power lawnmower), the time needed to make decisions increased by 20 percent.

Conclusion #4: The song search is the issue.

Once again, technology is to blame. According to research conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, scrolling through playlists on an MP3 player can impair driving performance. When drivers searched lists of 580 songs, they looked away from the road more often and for longer periods (over 2 seconds) when compared with shorter playlists. Aftermarket MP3 controllers intended to decrease distraction were not helpful — in fact, they actually lengthened the amount of time the drivers’ eyes were off the road.

Our conclusion …

Based on this conflicting data, we can’t say for sure whether music causes distraction behind the wheel or not. But, as with most things, common sense can make up for a lot of uncertainty. Any device that causes you to glance away from the road for several seconds should be avoided. And whether it impairs driving or not, excessively loud music can prevent you from hearing sirens or horns.

What do you think about music and driving? Does it distract you or help you focus? Would you listen to music you disliked if you thought it would make you more alert? Share your views below.

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Find out how technology can help drivers stay focused.
Read more interesting facts about distracted driving.

65 Responses to “Does Music Make You an Unsafe Driver?”

  1. Lori V.
    September 25, 2013 #

    Years ago, I was slapped with a $1000 ticket and 4 points on my license for speeding while listening to a favorite song. Everything in moderation, but I don't listen to music in the car much anymore (nor do I speed for that matter!).

  2. David Boeger
    May 23, 2014 #

    Having learned to drive in Missouri just prior to moving to a big city in California, I absolutely need music to keep me calm on the road. Whether music would help me or distract me on calm country roads, I'm not sure. I've driven to Las Vegas and some public lands out in the country, and I generally didn't play music while driving out in the country, but I never felt the need to try. In the city however, I would absolutely be much angrier and more aggressive without playing my music loudly in the car. Knowing what it's like to drive out in the nice, quiet countryside, I will probably never get used to city traffic, but at least I can focus on the road and not the scary masses of aggressive drivers in the city.

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