Listening to music while driving doesn't seem to curb response time and might even boost your focus in certain conditions, new Dutch research suggests.
For younger but experienced drivers, loud music from a CD or radio is not a safety concern on par with talking on a cellphone behind the wheel, a simulated-driving study of about 50 college-aged students found.
"Speaking on a cellphone or listening to passengers talking is quite different than listening to music, as the former types are examples of a more engaging listening situation," said study author Ayca Berfu Unal, an environmental and traffic psychologist who was a doctoral student at the University of Groningen when she embarked on the research.
"Listening to music, however, is not necessarily engaging all the time, and it seems like music or the radio might stay in the background, especially when the driving task needs full attention of the driver," Unal said.
She acknowledged, however, that her observations are in many ways preliminary and still await publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Distracted driving is a serious public health issue. Each day in the United States, more than nine people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes that involve a distracted driver, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To study music's influence on driving performance, Unal enlisted 47 university students between 19 and 25 years old to engage in a series of simulated road tests. Participants had more than two and a half years' driving experience on average.
First, they were asked to create their own playlist, to make sure the music they listened to was familiar and well-liked.
Computerized driving simulations then surrounded the motorists with four large screens to create a 240-degree view of traffic. Conditions included driving with loud music, driving with moderate-volume music and driving with no music. No sound adjustments were allowed while the tests were under way.
Participants took the virtual wheel for about a half-hour twice in two weeks along a monotonous, non-threatening and predictable drive in two-way traffic.
Unal monitored heart rate changes at five-minute intervals and assessed the drivers' car-following behavior as they adjusted to the changing speed of vehicles ahead of them. Drivers also were asked to report levels of arousal (feeling energized, bored, fatigued or sleepy) while on the road.
The result: Neither the presence of music nor its volume had any ill effect on the drivers' ability to properly follow the car ahead of them.
What's more, those who drove with music responded faster to changes in the speed of the car ahead than those driving without music. And the louder the music, the faster the response, Unal said.
Music also seemed to enhance drivers' energy and arousal, helping to alleviate boredom without siphoning off critical driver focus, she found. Louder music prompted more energy than moderate-volume music, the research showed.
Nonetheless, Unal cautioned that music may have a different impact under more strenuous driving conditions and might even be distracting in a hectic environment. "Yet we see that drivers try to prioritize the driving task in such settings by, for instance, blocking out radio content and trying to focus their attention only to driving-related tasks," she said.
Also, older drivers might react differently than the young adults she tested, and trips longer than 30 minutes might elicit different responses, she said.
Dr. Karen Sheehan, an attending physician in the department of pediatric emergency medicine at the Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, said the findings are inconclusive regarding music's impact on driving safety.
"From an injury-prevention point of view, I'm not sure if the study answers the question as to whether it's good or bad to listen to music when driving," said Sheehan, who also is medical director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Chicago.
"There are some limitations to the study. It's a driver simulation versus driving in the real world, so I'm not sure how well these findings would translate into a real-life situation," she said. "And, overall, I'm just not sure that there is enough information here to recommend listening to music when you drive."
U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Derrell Lyles said the agency could not comment on Unal's conclusions, given that "the agency has not studied the issue."
For more on driving safety, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.