Music may soothe the savage
beast, but a new study argues that novice teenage drivers who 'rock out' to a
playlist of favourite tunes may end up with impaired motor skills.
Active listening – humming
along with, tapping out the beat of or otherwise getting absorbed by tracks youthful
drivers know and like – appears to distract them from the rules of the road,
The result is an increase
in error-prone behaviours, such as speeding, tailgating and one-handed
steering, as well as aggressive and distracted lane-switching and passing.
On the other hand, the
Israeli investigators said, certain types of music can actually promote safe
teen driving, when comprised of less familiar, calming compositions.
"The car is the only
place – the only audio-related acoustic environment – [in which] listening to
music can be fatal," said study co-author Warren Brodsky, director of
music science research in the department of the arts at Ben-Gurion University
of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel.
"So the message has to
be learn to choose music more appropriately," Brodsky said. "And if
or when circumstances are more risky – such as being tired, at night time, in
highly congested traffic, after party duress, or [when a driver is] a bit tipsy
or very emotional – there might be music that could increase safety and lower
risk factors for the... ride home."
Brodsky joined his BGU
colleague Zack Slor to discuss their research, funded by the Israel National
Road Safety Authority, in the October issue of the journal Accident Analysis
The study comes on the
heels of recent Dutch research, in which Ayca Berfu Unal, of the University of
Groningen, found that the driving abilities of young people were not negatively
impacted by listening to music of their choosing. That research, however, was a
conducted using a virtual road simulation test and involved university students
between the ages of 19 and 25 with an average of two and a half years of
By contrast, Brodsky and
Slor focused on the real-world road experience of 85 new Israeli drivers
between the ages of 17 and 18, all of whom had procured their licenses an
average of only seven months prior to the study launch. Roughly 60% were male.
None of the participants
had been to traffic court, and only 8% had ever been involved in a collision.
Music, the authors said,
was a near-ubiquitous feature of the driving experience, with 86% saying they
listened to music all the time when behind the wheel. Pretty much all (99%)
described that music as "moderately fast or very fast", and nearly as
many (94%) said they played it on the loud end of the scale.
Challenging road trips
All the teens were paired
with one of two expert driving instructors, with whom they embarked on a series
of six challenging 40-minute, 25-mile road trips, under three different
conditions: two trips while playing their own music, two trips while playing
author-supplied music and two trips with no music.
The participants' preferred
music included an average of 12 songs taken from each driver's personal
collection. About two-thirds were international tracks, while a third were
By contrast, the 30-minute
"alternate" music collection (selected by Brodsky and Israeli
composer Micha Kisner) included eight tracks of unfamiliar non-vocal tunes from
the genres of easy listening, soft rock or light jazz, with a focus on lush
harmonies and relatively modest rhythms, tempos, timbres, voice textures and
devices and driving instructor observations revealed that while listening to
their preferred music, 98% of the teens displayed (on at least one of the two
trips) three or more driving deficiencies. Deficiencies included driving
aggressively or inaccurately, miscalculating and committing a traffic
Nearly one-third of the
preferred trips required an instructor to yell out a sudden verbal warning or
command, while one-fifth needed their assistance to steer or brake in order to
prevent an accident.
On the no-music trips 92% of
the teens also made similar errors.
The team found, however,
that when teens drove with the calming alternate soundtrack in the background
their deficient driving behaviours fell by 20%.
But will teen drivers turn
down the volume on music they like? Brodsky pointed to the slow but steady
acceptance of seatbelts and condoms, suggesting that this too "is an issue
of awareness and changing attitudes".
"The car is not a
dance floor, nor a karaoke bar, a sports facility or exercise class," he
said, adding that "the music chosen to listen to should be more adaptive
to the environment."
Although the US National
Highway and Transportation Safety Administration deems "adjusting a radio,
CD player or MP3 player" to be a distraction that "could divert a
person's attention away from the primary task of driving", it has not
specifically studied how music itself might distract drivers.
The NHTSA, however, did
point out that in 2011 more than 390 000 Americans were involved in a crash
with a distracted driver, and that the under-20 set is the age group with the
largest proportion of distracted drivers.
For more on distracted
driving concerns, visit the US
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
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