How Music Affects Driving Ability


April is Distracted Driving Awareness month, and we will be covering various forms of distractions that can have a profoundly dangerous effect on your driving ability.

In our last article, we covered the deadliest sin of distracted driving – phone usage.

However, there are still lots of people who have gotten themselves into accidents who weren’t actually flagrantly disregarding road safety. Sometimes, the most sneaky and unassuming distractions could be the most dangerous culprits behind car accidents.

In this article, we explore Music as a hidden distraction.

We Need Music

Image via Shutterstock by Federico Marsicano

Image via Shutterstock by Federico Marsicano

Almost all of us listen to some form of music in the car, ranging from our favourite personal mixes to radio stations. It isn’t just habitual – studies have shown that listening to music in traffic jams eases the anxiety, stress, mental boredom and restlessness that comes with being stuck in traffic congestion. In addition, having some background noise can serve to improve concentration, which is always a plus point while driving.

However, in spite of its benefits, driving with the music on also poses a slew of distractions – especially if you’re making your way downtown in decibel-topping, raucous music.

The Bad News

Image via screenshot from White Chicks, 2004

Image via screenshot from White Chicks, 2004

A typical car stereo reaches a maximum volume of about 110 dB, although there are some that can reach more than 170 dB. A Canadian study has shown that loud music decreases a driver’s reaction time by up to 20% when subjected to loud volumes; a potentially fatal delay even at moderate speeds.

"Drivers have people and vehicles and pedestrians coming at them all the time. If they lose 0.35 seconds because of their loud music, it is the difference between an accident or safety," said Duane Button.

How Loud is Too Loud?

The study was conducted with the benchmark set at 95 dB, which is roughly the volume levels of a power lawnmower, or a Boeing 737 aircraft at one nautical mile before landing. While that may seem very loud, car radio volumes can often reach 100 dB, with the driver not realising how loud their habitual volume really is.

The study also found that at 53 dB - the equivalent to an office - the time it took to complete decision-making tasks decreased by 5%. This shows that the very act of listening to music does inhibit concentration and focus.

Your Favourite Songs Could Kill You

More interestingly, it appears that music is most distracting when they are your favourite songs. A study testing teen drivers on their driving ability while listening to music of their choice found that when the drivers listened to their preferred music, as many as 98% made errors. Of these, 32% required a sudden verbal warning or command for action, and 20% needed intervention in steering or braking to prevent a collision.

“The research is irrefutable that listening to music in the car affects the way you drive,” Prof. Warren Brodsky explains. “But whether it’s Beethoven, Basie or Bieber is irrelevant. Ideally drivers should choose tunes that do not trigger distracting thoughts, memories, emotions, or hand drumming along to the beat while driving.”

Finding The Balance

Regardless of music choice or its volume, other peripheral distractions include attempts to select radio stations, or choosing a particular song buried within a Spotify playlist.

While we won’t suggest something extreme like never listening to music you enjoy, we advocate planning playlists ahead of time, and keeping volumes at around 60 dB to minimise its effect on your concentration.

Be safe!