Driver Knowledge Tests

Can music help you concentrate when driving?

For some people, the car is where they consume the majority of their music. If the car supports Bluetooth then you can wirelessly stream music from your smartphone. If it has a USB in then you can directly connect an MP3 player or phone (some cars, e.g. certain Holden models with MyLink fitted, allow you to directly control apps such as Pandora and Stitcher). If you can’t connect a media player then there’s always a CD or the radio. It’s almost impossible to be without music, but does music help us concentrate when driving, or is it a distraction?

It’s well known that adjusting the radio in the car is a common cause of accidents – it’s the moment’s inattention that causes you to run into the back of the vehicle in front or cross the centre line and have a head-on smash. We now have more ways to ‘adjust the radio’ – it’s no longer just switching the station, but changing CDs, scrolling through a list of MP3s or changing the internet radio channel or app.

A study conducted by Warren Brodsky and Zack Slor looked at the type of background music as a risk factor among 85 young novice drivers who had just got their driver’s licence. The drivers had an average age of 17 and had received their licence within the last 7 months. They had to complete a total of six trips in three different configurations: music of their choice, music of the researchers’ choice and no music. The car was a dual control learner’s vehicle and a supervisor was present in the car at all times. The driving was monitored, including using eye tracking.

Every driver made mistakes – at least 3. 17 needed a steering or braking input by the supervisor to avoid an accident and 27 needed a verbal warning or command.

When a driver listened to no music, this formed the baseline of there competency. If they chose their own music (and dance/trance was the dominant style chosen) their driving became more aggressive and they were more likely to have an accident. If they used the researchers’ music, which was designed to create a certain frame of mind, they had less risk of having an accident – even less risk than no music at all.

That study was completed with a small number of novice drivers and perhaps as we get more experience in driving we build neural networks to make driving more of an automatic response. A study conducted by Ayça Berfu Ünal, Linda Steg and Kai Epstude tested participants’ driving with loud music. They measured mental effort by playing loud music while having the driver describe what they were doing while driving in a simulator that simulated a number of driving situations bother complex and boring.

They found that drivers didn’t have any increased risk of having an accident, but that loud music did create a mental overhead.

Therefore, taking the results from the two studies it seems that if you are a novice driver that you shouldn’t be listening to music of your choice in the car while you are driving. Certain types of music (probably not the ones you want to listen to, though), can improve your concentration. However, once you are more experienced, music has an effect on your ability to think about what you are doing, but it doesn’t create any significant risk just by listening to it. The only thing you have to be careful of is inattention caused by fiddling with any controls that adjust your music.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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