At the end of May, IAM Roadsmart and Auto Express magazine published an article entitled, “Is heavy metal the driver’s enemy? IAM RoadSmart and Auto Express research say yes! And classical isn’t much better.” The title alone is a rather bold claim and as such it spread like wildfire across the various music websites and rock/metal news blogs of the Internet, and eventually appeared on my newsfeed. 

As an avid music listener (both in the vehicle and out), “metal head,” and Audio Engineer in the automotive industry, this title caught my attention on a number of levels; I instantly clicked on it in search of a well-executed research and analysis to support these assertions. That is not at all what I found.

The basic premise was that the type of music you listen to has an effect on your driving performance. Fair enough – but for each of the four tested genres (“thrash metal,” classical, hip-hop, and pop) only one song was somehow selected to represent the whole genre. And on top of that, the conclusions were apparently drawn from the performance of only one driver. It became clear that the article was instead relying on dramatic, over-simplified descriptors (ferocious, fast, and noisy) to compensate for the “study’s” lacking sample size, thoroughness, and technical musical knowledge.

However, thanks to a recommendation from a colleague, I did end up finding the thorough, technical analysis I had been looking for. Dr. Warren Brodsky, Director of Music Psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, actually published a whole book on the matter: “Driving with Music: Cognitive-Behavioral Implications.” With unaccompanied driving being one of the most frequently-reported activities done while listening to music, Brodsky looks at a multitude of studies – and conducts some of his own – to investigate how this aural background might contribute to driver error. “The automobile,” Brodsky comments, “is perhaps the only everyday circumstance where specific features in the background music can increase the possibility of human fatality.”

Excluding physical user actions related to in-car music that are perhaps more obvious causes of driver distraction such as adjusting the volume, scrolling through playlists, changing a CD, this book instead addresses how characteristics of the sounds themselves might influence a driver’s behavior. Although many of the referenced studies categorize their test songs by genre – or even attempt to directly investigate different genres – Brodsky makes an extremely important point: the identification of a music genre is highly complex and most research scientists who employ music within traffic-related studies are not musicologists and therefore cannot reliably select experimental examples. This was seen first-hand in the IAM RoadSmart/Auto Express article. So instead of trying to express my findings in terms of the highly controversial use of genre, I’m going to point out some of the interesting findings in Brodsky’s book:

  • Listening at high volumes: One of the first conclusions discussed in this text is that listening to any sort of music at excessively high volumes can be distracting to a driver. When your music is so loud that it begins to eclipse other more important stimuli (sirens, other vehicles, pedestrians, vehicle alerts, and so on) safety becomes a concern.
  • High-intensity low-frequency characteristics: These are the booming bass sounds that are sometimes so loud you can hear them coming from two cars over. This point is partially covered by the first bullet, but the tactile/vibratory qualities of these high-intensity low frequencies introduce some new concerns. They may distort or completely overwhelm any audio-tactile alerts intended for the driver (such as haptic feedback and rumble strips) and tend to be more encompassing than mid/high-range frequencies.
  • Intensely emotive music: This is any music that elicits a strong emotional response, whether that be through the melodies, lyrics, or both. This can be a ballad that makes you introspective and withdrawn, an energetic piece that gets you hyped up, an anthem that makes you clench your fists, or anything in between. Just like loud/intense sounds can drown out important audio-visual-tactile information, intense emotions can cloud driver judgment and attention.
  • High-tempo (fast) music: In a study done by Brodsky in 2002, it was found that listening to fast-paced music consistently resulted in accelerated driving and more traffic violations than when listening to slow/medium-paced music, or no music at all. This effect can be related to two psychoacoustic properties, “rhythmic contagion” (influence of tempo on perception of temporal activities) and “rhythmic entrainment” (synchronization of a behavior or physiology with tempo).

Now, you might be looking at these qualities with a sinking feeling and realize that most of the music you listen to contains most – if not all – of them. What now? In the above article Steve Fowler, editor-in-chief of Auto Express suggests that, “As well as making a conscious decision to put their phone away when driving, motorists should also think carefully about what music they listen to.” Brodsky, too, concludes that certain music choices are inappropriate for driving and not in the best interest of safety. There’s no universal “DO NOT PLAY WHILE DRIVING” playlist; what constitutes appropriate differs from person to person. Is the answer then driver awareness? Might educating drivers on the importance of safe in-car listening habits and music selection help reduce distraction, aggression, and other driver deficiencies?

Let’s take a step back – what is it about listening to music in the car that’s so important to us? Brodsky makes another important point here: the car (especially with a solo driver) creates a pretty unique environment for experiencing music – the “autosphere.” We’re encompassed by this metal bubble and anonymous to those outside our own little sonic world. We bring in music that has some significance to us or that we want to experiment with and, if we’re so compelled, we feel free and safe to sing our hearts out. Many of us happen to consistently find ourselves in this environment – maybe for significant amounts of time – day after day. It’s a rather fascinating, and somewhat emotionally tied habit we’ve cultivated over the last 50-some years – and I don’t believe it’s a trivial experience.

But if we must limit what we listen to for the sake of safe driving behaviors, does that mean the end of the autosphere? Is relying on ADAS and autonomous technologies to keep us safe the only hope for its preservation?

s mehdizadeh
Sophia Mehdizadeh