Music to scaremongers’ ears

How dangerous is drum'n'bass while driving?

Stuart Blackman

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Topics Politics

According to New Scientist magazine, researchers have found that ‘drivers who listen to fast music in their cars may have more than twice as many accidents as those listening to slower tracks’ (1). The scientist responsible for the study says drivers should be educated about the dangers of playing upbeat music on their car stereos.

But on closer inspection, the research says little about whether swapping your in-car drum’n’bass collection for the latest chill-out compilation really reduces your chances of knocking down old ladies.

To examine the effect of background music on driving performance, Warren Brodsky of Ben-Gurion University in Israel put 28 experienced drivers through their paces around the streets of a virtual Chicago on a driving simulator (2). The subjects drove for 90 minutes, during which time they were exposed to music rated as fast, medium or slow, or no music at all. The tracks ranged from trundling Kenny G numbers (a good reason to crash your car if ever I heard one) to fast and furious club music.

Brodsky found that, as the tempo of the music increased, so too did the simulated driving speed and the frequency of traffic violations – including collisions and jumping red lights. The subjects who listened to fast music were involved in twice as many virtual collisions as those who were exposed to slow and medium tempos.

‘With the car now the place where people most often listen to music, the research is worrying’, said New Scientist. Brodsky laments that ‘drivers’ education courses do not warn learners about the risks involved of driving with music’, and claims that there is ‘a need for drivers’ education courses to raise public awareness about the effects of music during driving’.

Brodsky also explained how he had changed his own behaviour in the light of his findings. According to New Scientist, the music used in the study were all pieces that Brodsky had tested on himself while driving to work. ‘I could hardly control myself with some of the pieces’, he said. ‘It was difficult taking my foot off the gas pedal. I’m now more careful in my choice of music.’

Only a very brave person would accept a lift from Dr Brodsky after reading that. But, thankfully, the average driver has more self-control. In his report, Brodsky says that ‘drivers tend to turn down the radio volume in heavy traffic as loud arousing music requires greater processing demands’. So why shouldn’t drivers also be able to assess the risks associated with fast music and adjust their behaviour accordingly?

Brodsky does accept that behaviour on a simulator may not translate into the same behaviour on the road. ‘Studies performed in simulated driving environments cannot guarantee that the attentional requirements are equivalent to real driving’, he writes, ‘especially as far as the perception of risk is concerned, or in regard to time-sharing strategies’.

The fact is, in Brodsky’s experiment there was no actual risk – and therefore no need for the subjects to adjust their driving behaviour in response to music-induced mood changes. And the subjects’ ability to assess the virtual risk of their driving behaviour during the experiment was further limited by the removal of the speedometer from the visual display.

Also, the experiment simulated a fairly short journey in an urban setting. Surely you could argue that, in some circumstances, loud music might conceivably increase safety – by keeping you alert during a long motorway journey, for example (though I’m not recommending that you should rely on a continuous loop of Motorhead to keep you awake while driving if you haven’t slept for a week). Yet Brodsky fails to consider these options, despite citing evidence that fast background music increases the rate and precision of mathematical computations in stock-market environments (3).

Despite all these caveats, by the time Brodsky’s story had been picked up by the popular press, the causative effect of fast music on accident rate had mutated from a theoretical possibility to an established fact. ‘Drivers who listen to fast music are twice as likely to take risks and make errors as those listening to slower tracks on their stereos’, stated the UK Independent (4).

What received less attention was the more well-worn fact that driving is getting safer all the time. In 2000, deaths and serious injuries on Britain’s roads were, respectively, 39 percent and 49 percent lower than in the early 1980s – despite a 58 percent increase in traffic over the same period (5).

There really is no reason to worry. On the evidence of Brodsky’s findings, the only lifestyle change worth making is this – play something very fast and very loud if you want to beat your personal best at Grand Theft Auto on your Playstation.

Stuart Blackman is a freelance science journalist.

(1) Fast music linked to car crashes, New Scientist, 15 March 2002

(2) Transportation Research F, vol 4, p219

(3) Psychological Reports, vol 65, p1283-1290

(4) How to avoid crashing your car: pump down the volume and put a slow song on the stereo, Independent, 15 March 2002

(5) Road Accidents Great Britain: 2000, Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, table 1a

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