By Cathal Donovan O’Neill, Music Editor
The fence at the end of my lane’s looking shaky, and I blame Kate Bush. I was taking a drive with her last week, performing a three-point turn that quickly acquired several more points, when she took control of the wheel, pulled the clutch up a little too far and, long story short, that picket was being tenderly pushed into a 45 degree angle by the rear end of my Hyundai i10. After a speedy pullout it turned out there was no lasting damage to both the fence and The Death Vehicle, but I knew. Friendship ended with Kate Bush; Nick Cave is my best friend now. It couldn’t have been my fault.
Well, maybe. I was curious about whether or not music affects your driving, so I did some research. Here’s what I got.
Is there a direct link between music and accidents?
No direct link has been found between music and driving, so for the most part, what we’re dealing with is correlation, not causation. One study found that music played in about 25% of reported incidents, but concluded that wasn’t enough to establish a real link. Radio, talk shows, conversations: There are all kinds of things that can affect your driving as much as music. Maybe you’ll be safer if you turn off the music, and maybe you’ll be safer if you listen to Kate Bush over Maniac 2000 — but at the end of the day, the effort you put into driving matters far more.
Does the genre affect driving?
Seems like it. High-complexity music seems to be a big musical risk factor. Lots of sudden noises, tempo switches: Yes, techno and house are the most dangerous genres to drive to. There’s a high cognitive load there, but there’s also the memories attached: It’ll put you back in
that club mindset, drinks in hand, good times with your mates. Indie and pop are pretty safe, but the safest is classical. Again, common sense — it’s familiar, relaxing (tangent, but this may be the greatest argument for the societal benefit of Marty Whelan in the Morning on LyricFM). In low-risk situations, enjoyable classical music might even make your driving better.
Time to pump the Stravinsky bangers loud, so?
Yeah, no. High-volume is another risk factor. If it’s a relatively straightforward genre, you should be fine — nobody could, or should, be trying to stop you from belting Kate Bush songs. But if it’s something like Skrillex, maybe keep the volume to a medium level. Actually, if you’re playing Skrillex, maybe just turn your radio off altogether.
What about belting songs, actually? HEATHCLIFF! IT’S M–
Surprisingly, it’s fine to belt. Animated conversations boost the risk so it’s fair to assume that singing along would too, but there isn’t really a correlation. It’s to do with word shadowing — mouthing along to something doesn’t really use any brainpower. That said, if you’re doing the whole-hog ‘Wuthering Heights’ full-body sway you will probably end up wuthering yourself into a wall.
What about playing with the radio?
Not ideal (but, let’s be honest, we’re both going to do it anyway). On average, experienced drivers spend more time looking at their car radio and fiddling with it than looking at the speedometer. An older study found that drivers adjusted their radio eight times every hour in some way, which usually lasted about 5.5 seconds and involved taking their hand(s) off the wheel. One study says that playing with your radio tuning takes up even more attention than fiddling with a phone.
So, is the solution just turning off music while I drive?
Er. Good question. Studies disagree. Some say go for complete silence, others say that happy, simple music you enjoy will stave off boredom and put you in a good mood. Some actually get a bit passive aggressive about the methods used to test it.
The facts: Silence while driving is associated with having a good no-claims bonus in young people, but in scenarios where people were tested on and observed while driving, silence had the same effect as playing incredibly depressing music: a worse mood and worse reaction times. So, there’s a consensus on that, at least: Don’t listen to depressing music that makes you feel bad. Save your MP3 of Everywhere at the end of time for home.
But I definitely shouldn’t have it on in traffic or something, right?
Yeah. Common sense rule applies again: In high-pressure situations, everyone agrees any radio program will affect your braking time and ability to respond to objects in your peripheral vision, like the one who tried to swerve into the middle lane on the Bishopstown roundabout. Then I’m bricking myself, and to avoid him I have to turn into the inner lane. If I had been listening to the ‘CRUNCHIEST TEMPOS™’ of electronic group MESSYNG, I might have died that day. And that would have been very sad, for you.
Anyway, my point is, don’t listen to loud music when you’re doing tricky driving.
And on long drives? What if it’s just to stay awake? Surely the uplifting power of ‘80s pop singer/songerwriter/spiritual queen of Albion Kate Bush would keep me awake?
Gonna be honest this, this one surprised me: There’s no correlation between radio and staying awake during long-distance drives. For the first thirty minutes there’s a small jump in attention, but after that it’s the same drop-off as no music. The moving power of music isn’t a substitute for stopping to chug a coffee or taking a nap, as any student during study week can tell you. Speaking of students: One of the risks of long-distance driving is the assumption that the radio makes a big difference, and it’s an assumption mostly found in young people. The theory goes that if you think radio will carry you over the line, you’ll act like you’re fine, when really you’re not. Something to be aware of.