University College London has published a study which indicates that listening to music while driving causes low level distraction that leads to slower reaction times and a reduced awareness of road conditions around you while driving.
The creator of the study, Dr Ulrich Pomper, admits that in normal driving conditions for normal drivers the impact is low level. However, he says that for the elderly, hearing impaired, or drivers who are tired, stressed, or trying to perform complex navigation tasks, the impact can be significant and dangerous.
Mobile phone use while driving has already been proven to be a leading cause of driver distraction and serious accidents. Could this study be the start of road safety experts pushing to ban music in cars as well, on the grounds that it could lead to driver distraction and cause accidents?
Outline of the study
In the study, scientists measured the brain activity of a group of volunteers while listening to sounds coming from speakers. People listening to music were found to have slower reaction times and higher mental stress when looking away from the source of the audio.
The people behind the study also think the effect could be worse when we are tired or under stress, as well as for people with hearing issues and older people. The researchers, from the University College London (UCL) Ear Institute, found that moving the gaze just a few degrees away from the source of a sound can have a profound effect on brain activity.
They believe this is because our brains expect the direction of our gaze to be aligned with what we hear. While we believe we can listen to sounds attentively without looking towards them, the findings indicate that this isn’t the case.
Everyday listening impact
In the test, the researchers aimed to recreate everyday listening situations, attempting to follow a single sound from a range of competing noises ones, under controlled lab conditions. A group of 19 participants each sat facing three loudspeakers and were told to follow the sounds from one while ignoring the other two.
They were also told to look at either the speaker they were following or one of the others. The researchers found that when people looked away from the loudspeaker they were following, their reaction times were slower than when they were looking at the source of the sound.
The effect was also coupled with increased brain activity, meaning people had to concentrate harder on the tasks when they weren’t looking at the loudspeaker they were listening to. People with hearing problems and older people experienced a greater degree of difficulty with the task.
Distracted driving solutions
According to researchers, listening to music or even talking to someone who is to the side of you or behind you could result in you being distracted while driving. Even navigating in traffic, for example by looking right while you listen to a sat nav system, can result in distraction.
Listening to music, sat nav instructions, or people talking in a car is virtually impossible to police or ban. However, a ban on mobile phone use was once thought virtually impossible to police too. There is currently a major clampdown on people using mobile phones while driving, due to their distracting possibilities and risk of causing accidents.
Scientists at Nissan have recently announced a signal blocker that prevents mobile users being distracted while at the wheel. Aimed at ‘compulsive checkers’ who can’t resist checking their phones, the technology brings a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem, using the principle of a “Faraday Cage,” developed over 180 years ago. Nissan has introduced a compartment in the armrest of its cars that not only stores the device but acts as a signal blocker, preventing any WiFi and mobile signals from connecting with the smartphone.
Experts said only a few years ago that mobile phone use in cars would be impossible to enforce; now it’s law. If health and safety campaigners or the Police think that listening to music causes distraction and creates accidents, we could be sitting in silence on Britain’s roads in the future.
What do you think about this UCL research? Do you agree that music can be a source of driver distraction? Do you think the authorities would consider banning music in cars if it was proven to cause accidents? Let us know in the comments below.