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.

Related posts

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. Lynn
    September 19, 2013 #

    i LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE DRIVING ,IT'S RELAXING KEEPS YOU FROM GETTING
    STRESSED OUT !

  2. Sandra
    September 19, 2013 #

    Listening to music when driving is fine if it is the radio and not an Ipod music can be relaxing so pay attention to the traffic and be ssfe control yourself from getting involved in any rosd rage.

  3. Christine
    September 19, 2013 #

    Listening to the radio. I have no problems. But when I plug in my I pod on my way to work, I will admit that I tend to look at it than pay attention to the road. I think it depends on the person and situation in which they're driving. when my son's are in the car I listen to children's music and have conversations with my 5 year old. It doesn't impair my driving whatsoever.

  4. nick kramer
    September 19, 2013 #

    I listen to music all the time. The only way it becomes a distraction is if your constantly changing staions. That takes your eyes and attention off the road.

  5. Brady
    September 19, 2013 #

    Well written article. Puts the different elements of listening to music on paper with a clear cut, precision accuracy aimed directly at your face :).

  6. Scott C Cordts
    September 19, 2013 #

    I think you can listen to whatever you want regardless if a song distracts you from save driving maybe you should ride a bike or take the bus…..

  7. Sera
    September 20, 2013 #

    When I was in college, the only way I could get through late nite of studying was music. It also keeps me calm and alert when I am driving. **Music stimulates the mind. (**your own choice of music)

  8. Pamela thompson
    September 20, 2013 #

    It seems to me that the listening is not the problem but the changing og the volume or station is indeed a distraction.

  9. Josh Mac
    September 20, 2013 #

    Music is perfectly safe and if it is not then that person should be responsible enough turn off the radio

  10. Caitlyn Calvo
    September 20, 2013 #

    I love listening to music while I drive.

  11. Laurel White
    September 20, 2013 #

    Balance is the key I guess, listen to what you like but keep the volume down and decide what you are going to listen to before you leave.

  12. Josephine Freeman
    September 20, 2013 #

    I think it could be good or bad depending on the weather

  13. John
    September 20, 2013 #

    I Believe that it all depends on the music that you are listening to, although I find that when I listen to talk radio I drive the safest.

  14. Erophili Kaparakes
    September 20, 2013 #

    I think music can help you relax more while driving. If you get into the groove of the music it can help you drive better.

  15. deepzek
    September 20, 2013 #

    I listen to Metal and my radio is always very loud while driving, sometimes it makes me more aggressive driver but I never make mistakes or disobey rules.

  16. Joshua
    September 20, 2013 #

    I agree, when I play the music I like, I am very distracted. Bad music makes me concentrate.

  17. Jennifer J
    September 20, 2013 #

    This sounds like common sense. Anything that causes your attention to wander from what you are doing can't be good no matter what it is.

  18. JimiC
    September 20, 2013 #

    I entertain the possibility that music is not the distraction. The routine of driving is distracting, especially if one drives the same route and sees the same people at work day after day. Music is such a major part of my life and I am grateful that we have the technology which allows me to have it wherever I am.

  19. Bear
    September 20, 2013 #

    i like to listen to NPR and WNRN listener supported independent music radio here in Virginia while driving. i feel it relaxes me and holds my attention. ya know – driving long distances can be rather boring if you are alone. bear

  20. Lesly
    September 20, 2013 #

    The point I believe is to stay focus on the road and other cars around you. Loud music does not help when it comes to hearing sirens such as an emergency vehicle.

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