1. Which bar patrons underestimate their inebriation the most?

    July 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Research Society on Alcoholism press release:

    Prior research suggests that college students, males, and people drinking alcohol at restaurants, bars, and nightclubs are at particularly high risk for driving after drinking. Breath-testing devices are not usually found at these drinking establishments, so patrons generally assess their own intoxication levels using internal (feelings of intoxication) and external (number of drinks consumed) cues. This study examined bar patrons’ self-estimates of their breath alcohol concentrations (BrACs) in natural drinking environments.

    Researchers recruited 510 study participants, on 14 nights between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., as they exited two bars located close to large universities: one in Florida (n=301) and the other in Texas (n=209). Research assistants conducted a 10-15 minute interview with each of the exiting patrons and measured their BrAC with hand-held testing devices.

    Bar patrons with the highest-measured BrACs underestimated their levels the most. Adjusting for their measured BrAC, individuals who felt more intoxicated or who reported consuming more drinks thought that their BrACs were higher. However, more than 20 percent of participants with a BrAC of at least 0.08% (the legal driving limit) thought that their BrAC was below this level. Individuals younger than 26 and those who reported feeling less drunk were more likely to make this error. Study authors called for more research to assess the association between self-estimated BrACs and driving behavior in different contexts, and to investigate how altering drinking environments could improve individuals’ ability to self-estimate their BrACs and avoid driving after drinking.


  2. Study suggests following a friend may lead to unsafe driving behavior

    July 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    A new study, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology provides scientific proof to show that drivers who follow another car to a destination are more likely to drive dangerously.

    “We have found that when someone is asked to follow another vehicle, it can lead to them engaging in risky driving behavior, such as driving faster, making more erratic turns and following too close to the car in front. This is most likely caused by a fear of getting lost,” says Robert Gray, a Professor in Human Systems Engineering, who carried out this research with his team at the Arizona State University, USA.

    He continues, “This study was actually inspired by an accident analysis I was doing for a court case, where a driver was seriously injured in a ‘following a friend’ scenario. Although most people have an intuition it can be dangerous, we couldn’t find any research to back this up.”

    Professor Gray and his colleagues decided to test this intuition by recruiting students with a valid driving licence to participate in a driving simulation. Initially, they were asked to drive wherever they wanted in the simulated city to get an idea of their basic driving behaviour. This was compared to how they drove when guided by a navigation system and also to their driving behaviour when asked to ‘follow your friend in the car in front’. As well assessing their general speed, distance to the car in front and the time it took to move lanes; hazards were presented to see if their behaviour changed under different driving scenarios.

    “We observed changes in behaviour that increased the likelihood of being involved in an accident,” reveals Professor Gray.

    When drivers were ‘following a friend’, they drove faster and more erratically, closer to the car in front and made quicker lane changes, compared to how they drove under normal conditions or with a guided navigation system. In addition, when confronted with hazards in the ‘following a friend’ simulation, the drivers were more likely to cut in front of a pedestrian crossing a road and speed through traffic lights turning red.

    “It is important to note that in our simulation, the leader and other vehicles around them did not break any laws, so the follower was not just copying the risky driving behavior they saw from someone else,” says Professor Gray.

    By using a computerized driving simulation, the study was able to eliminate the contagious effect, where driver behaviour can be influenced by the traffic around them. Drivers often feel a social pressure to keep pace with other traffic and run traffic lights when other vehicles do the same.

    Professor Gray concludes by offering some advice when a friend offers to show you the way. “If you are faced with this situation, get the address from the lead driver and use a map or navigation device so you know how to get there yourself. In the future, we plan to investigate whether some knowledge about the location of the destination can get rid of these dangerous effects.”


  3. Researchers pinpoint ‘attention disengagement’ lag as cause for impaired driving when talking on cell phone

    June 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Iowa press release:

    We all know that talking on a cell phone impedes your driving ability. But new research from the University of Iowa is helping us understand how even a simple conversation can affect your brain’s ability to focus on the roadway.

    UI researchers used computerized experiments that tracked eye movements while asking subjects to answer true or false questions. Respondents who answered the questions took about twice as long to direct their eyes to a new object on the screen than those not required to respond or who were asked no questions at all.

    The experiments mimic a scenario in which a driver is using a cell phone or having a conversation with a passenger, says Shaun Vecera, professor in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and corresponding author on the paper, published online June 5 in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

    It’s the first study known to examine attentional disengagement as the possible cause of poor driving while using a cell phone.

    “What this study suggests is the reason you should be cautious (when talking on the phone while driving) is it slows your attention down, and we’re just not aware of it because it happens so fast,” Vecera says.

    The delay is about 40 milliseconds, or four-hundredths of a second, which may not seem like a long time. But that delay compounds: Every time the brain is distracted, the time to disengage from one action and initiate another action gets longer.

    “It’s a snowball effect,” Vecera says, “and that’s what contributes to the problem, because eventually you’re oblivious to a lot that’s around you.”

    There’s little dispute cell phone use — whether texting or talking — is hazardous for drivers. The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration reports that in 2015, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving drivers engaged in cell phone conversations, texting, and other distractions.

    That’s why a growing number of states — Iowa included — have either limited or banned some uses of a cell phone while driving.

    Research has demonstrated cell phone use reduces a driver’s field of vision, creating a cone-like field of view akin to tunnel vision. Other studies have suggested using a cell phone while driving places a mental burden, or “cognitive load,” on drivers, making them less likely to detect and react to the appearance of a new object.

    Vecera and his team wanted to explore why the brain was burdened with something as simple as having a conversation. After all, why would talking on the phone affect your ability to pay attention to the road?

    Engaging in conversation, whether on the phone or with someone in the vehicle, “seems effortless,” Vecera says. But it’s far more complex than one would think. The brain is absorbing information, overlaying what you know (and what you don’t), and then preparing to construct a thoughtful reply.

    “That’s all very effortful,” Vecera says. “We do it extremely rapidly — so rapidly we don’t grasp how difficult it really is.”

    In a study published in 2011 in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Vecera and colleagues documented that older adults with poorer mental and visual abilities took longer to switch their attention from one object to another than older adults with diminished vision only. In his current study, he hypothesized that younger, healthy individuals asked to answer questions while training their eyes on objects would mimic the older adults with cognitive decline.

    The experiment was simple enough. The participants answered a series of true or false questions, termed “active listening,” while researchers used high-speed cameras to track how rapidly their eyes located and fixed on a new object that appeared on a computer screen. Other groups either were asked a question but were not required to answer (“passive listening”) or were not asked a question.

    Among the simple questions was: “C-3P0 is the name of a tall golden robot, and he was in the popular film Star Wars.”

    Among the more difficult questions was: “The Magna Carta was written as a legal proclamation, subjecting the king to the law.”

    It took nearly 100 milliseconds, on average, for participants answering questions to disengage their vision from one object and locate and fixate their vision on a new object that appeared on the screen.

    “Active listening delays the disengagement of attention, which must occur before attention can be moved to a new object or event,” Vecera says.

    In addition, the eye movements of participants asked to answer both simple and difficult questions also lagged. Researchers believe that’s because the brain needs to be engaged when actively listening, no matter how elementary the topic of conversation.

    The solution? Don’t talk on the phone while driving, Vecera says.

    “There’s no evidence that I know of that says you can eliminate the mental distraction of cell phone use with practice or conditioning,” he says. “But that is an open question that should be studied.”

    Benjamin Lester, a UI graduate who majored in psychology and former post-doctoral research scholar at the UI, is the paper’s first author. The U.S. National Science Foundation and the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center funded the research.


  4. Study suggests people walking to work or an errand more likely to stroll into dangerous areas

    June 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    People taking leisurely strolls tend to choose safer walking routes than those heading to work or on an errand, a new study found.

    Led by D. Alex Quistberg, Ph.D., an assistant research professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, the study used GPS, accelerometers and travel logs from a 2008-2009 survey in King County, Washington — which includes Seattle — to measure the path and purpose of 537 pedestrians. That data was then compared to maps on the probability of pedestrian collision risk, and the study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

    Quistberg and his team found that pedestrians on recreational walks were 8 percent less likely to be in areas where car collision risks were higher than those on utilitarian walks (walking somewhere with a purpose).

    “There’s likely a mix of things happening here,” Quistberg said. “On recreational walks, people likely want a more relaxing path than someone on a utilitarian walk.”

    The study also found that people who took longer walks, both in distance and time, were less likely to stray into dangerous areas (where car-collision risk is high). That, too, was likely tied to recreational walks vs. walks with a purpose. The study also took demographic data into account. This yielded the finding that people who lived in single-family homes, owned homes and/or owned a car all were less likely to walk in more dangerous areas.

    People who participated in the survey who had children were slightly less likely — around 2 percent — to walk in areas with high collision risk.

    “This could be due to people with children living in single-family homes, which are usually in neighborhoods that have a low risk of pedestrians collisions because of low traffic and slow speeds,” Quistberg explained. “It is also possible that people with children at home are walking more cautiously, perhaps with their children.”

    Recently, Dornsife School of Public Health Dean Ana Diez Roux, M.D., Ph.D., signed on to a letter supported by former president Jimmy Carter that appealed for protection of the walking paths of children, especially those headed to school. And although results from Quistberg’s study analyze adult pedestrians in Washington state, he believes they reveal information that could serve to improve walkability universally.

    “Improving road safety for pedestrians will support interest in walking for recreation as well as those who integrate a healthy walk into their commute,” Quistberg said.


  5. Study suggests perceptual judgment, motor skills not fully developed until age 14

    April 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Iowa press release:

    For adults, crossing the street by foot seems easy. You take stock of the traffic and calculate the time it will take to get from one side to the other without being hit.

    Yet it’s anything but simple for a child.

    New research from the University of Iowa shows children under certain ages lack the perceptual judgment and motor skills to cross a busy road consistently without putting themselves in danger. The researchers placed children from 6 to 14 years old in a realistic simulated environment and asked them to cross one lane of a busy road multiple times.

    The results: Children up to their early teenage years had difficulty consistently crossing the street safely, with accident rates as high as 8 percent with 6-year-olds. Only by age 14 did children navigate street crossing without incident, while 12-year-olds mostly compensated for inferior road-crossing motor skills by choosing bigger gaps in traffic.

    “Some people think younger children may be able to perform like adults when crossing the street,” says Jodie Plumert, professor in the UI’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “Our study shows that’s not necessarily the case on busy roads where traffic doesn’t stop.”

    For parents, that means taking extra precautions. Be aware that your child may struggle with identifying gaps in traffic large enough to cross safely. Young children also may not have developed the fine motor skills to step into the street the moment a car has passed, like adults have mastered. And, your child may allow eagerness to outweigh reason when judging the best time to cross a busy street.

    “They get the pressure of not wanting to wait combined with these less-mature abilities,” says Plumert, corresponding author on the study, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, published by the American Psychological Association. “And that’s what makes it a risky situation.”

    The National Center for Statistics and Analysis reported 8,000 injuries and 207 fatalities involving motor vehicles and pedestrians age 14 and younger in 2014.

    Plumert and her team wanted to understand the reasons behind the accident rates. For the study, they recruited children who were 6, 8, 10, 12, and 14 years old, as well as a control group of adults. Each participant faced a string of approaching virtual vehicles travelling 25 mph (considered a benchmark speed for a residential neighborhood) and then crossed a single lane of traffic (about nine feet wide). The time between vehicles ranged from two to five seconds. Each participant negotiated a road crossing 20 times, for about 2,000 total trips involving the age groups.

    The crossings took place in an immersive, 3-D interactive space at the Hank Virtual Environments Lab on the UI campus. The simulated environment is “very compelling,” says Elizabeth O’Neal, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences and the study’s first author. “We often had kids reach out and try to touch the cars.”

    The researchers found 6-year-olds were struck by vehicles 8 percent of the time; 8-year-olds were struck 6 percent; 10-year-olds were struck 5 percent; and 12-year-olds were struck 2 percent. Those age 14 and older had no accidents.

    Children contend with two main variables when deciding whether it’s safe to cross a street, according to the research. The first involves their perceptual ability, or how they judge the gap between a passing car and an oncoming vehicle, taking into account the oncoming car’s speed and distance from the crossing. Younger children, the study found, had more difficulty making consistently accurate perceptual decisions.

    The second variable was their motor skills: How quickly do children time their step from the curb into the street after a car just passed? Younger children were incapable of timing that first step as precisely as adults, which in effect gave them less time to cross the street before the next car arrived.

    “Most kids choose similar size gaps (between the passing car and oncoming vehicle) as adults,” O’Neal says, “but they’re not able to time their movement into traffic as well as adults can.”

    The researchers found children as young as 6 crossed the street as quickly as adults, eliminating crossing speed as a possible cause for pedestrian-vehicle collisions.

    So what’s a child to do? One recommendation is for parents to teach their children to be patient and to encourage younger ones to choose gaps that are even larger than the gaps adults would choose for themselves, O’Neal says. Also, civic planners can help by identifying places where children are likely to cross streets and make sure those intersections have a pedestrian-crossing aid.

    “If there are places where kids are highly likely to cross the road, because it’s the most efficient route to school, for example, and traffic doesn’t stop there, it would be wise to have crosswalks,” Plumert says.


  6. Study suggests hands-free technology may still affect driver attention

    April 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society press release:

    Drivers commonly perform secondary tasks while behind the wheel to navigate or communicate with others, which has led to a significant increase in the number of injuries and fatalities attributed to distracted driving. Advances in wearable technology, particularly devices such as Google Glass, which feature voice control and head-up display (HUD) functionalities, raise questions about how these devices might impact driver attention when used in vehicles. New human factors/ergonomics research examines how these interface characteristics can have a deleterious effect on safety.

    In their Human Factors article, “Driving While Interacting With Google Glass: Investigating the Combined Effect of Head-Up Display and Hands-Free Input on Driving Safety and Multitask Performance,” authors Kathryn Tippey, Elayaraj Sivaraj, and Thomas Ferris observed the performance of 24 participants in a driving simulator. The participants engaged in four texting-while-driving tasks: baseline (driving only), and driving plus reading and responding to text messages via (a) a smartphone keyboard, (b) a smartphone voice-to text system, and (c) Google Glass’s voice-to-text system using HUD.

    The authors found that driving performance degraded regardless of secondary texting task type, but manual entry led to slower reaction times and significantly more eyes-off-road glances than voice-to-text input using both smartphones and Google Glass. Glass’ HUD function required only a change in eye direction to read and respond to text messages, rather than the more disruptive change in head and body posture associated with smartphones. Participants also reported that Glass was easier to use and interfered less with driving than did the other devices tested.

    Tippey, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Research and Innovation in Systems Safety at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says, “Our evidence suggests that adding voice input and using an HUD can make secondary tasks like texting while driving less unsafe. However, regardless of entry or display method, it is not safe to perform these types of secondary task while driving in environments where the workload from driving is already heavy.”


  7. Drivers who slow down while using mobile phones may potentially increase on-road conflicts

    April 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Queensland University of Technology press release:

    Drivers who slow down while using mobile phones have the potential to increase on-road conflicts, a new QUT study warns.

    Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios, from QUT’s Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety — Queensland (CARRS-Q), said distracted drivers reducing their speed might sound favourable in terms of safety, but it could also lead to other types of crash risk.

    Drivers frustrated by following slow moving vehicles whose drivers have reduced speed to keep talking on their phones may perform aggressive overtaking manoeuvres, increasing the crash risk for other road users,” he said.

    The results of the study “Effects of road infrastructure and traffic complexity in speed adaptation behaviour of distracted drivers” have been published in the leading road safety journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

    Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios said using a mobile phone while driving had been shown to increase crash risk four-fold.

    “Young drivers are particularly at risk as there is a greater prevalence of driving while using a mobile phone in this age group.

    “While it’s illegal to use a handheld mobile phone while driving in Australia research has shown drivers continue to adopt the dangerous practice.”

    In a bid to highlight the dangers but also identify possible solutions, Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios’ research has looked at the way drivers react and respond to mobile phone use behind the wheel.

    “We found that on average distracted drivers travel at about 5km/h slower when following another vehicle and almost 3km/h slower in free-flowing traffic.

    “The negative consequences this has on other road users include increased risk of nose-to-tail crashes as a result of sudden stopping, perception of discourteous or aggressive driver behaviour, as well congestion to the transport system,” he said.

    “I guess the question needs to be asked, do we really want to sacrifice safety, efficiency and courtesy just to have a conversation?”

    Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios said the research also suggested ideas for safe ways to use mobile phones while driving.

    “We need to consider that if we can’t stop drivers using their mobile phones, is there a way to make it safe?

    “For example, changing the design of mobile phones so they are context-aware and only work when it is safe to do so.

    “Other options maybe looking at advances in technology and developing warning systems that alert drivers when they are distracted, or advise drivers of when it is safe to use their phone handsfree.”


  8. Study suggests cellphone distraction an issue for pedestrians as well

    June 28, 2013 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release via EurekAlert!:

    Cellphone walkingMore than 1,500 pedestrians were estimated to be treated in emergency rooms in 2010 for injuries related to using a cell phone while walking, according to a new nationwide study.

    The number of such injuries has more than doubled since 2005, even though the total number of pedestrian injuries dropped during that time. And researchers believe that the actual number of injured pedestrians is actually much higher than these results suggest.

    “If current trends continue, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cell phones doubles again between 2010 and 2015,” said Jack Nasar, co-author of the study and professor of city and regional planning at The Ohio State University.

    “The role of cell phones in distracted driving injuries and deaths gets a lot of attention and rightly so, but we need to also consider the danger cell phone use poses to pedestrians.”

    The study found that young people aged 16 to 25 were most likely to be injured as distracted pedestrians, and most were hurt while talking rather than texting.

    Nasar conducted the study with Derek Troyer, a former graduate student at Ohio State.  It appears in the August 2013 issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

    The researchers used data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a database maintained by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which samples injury reports from 100 hospitals around the country.  These reports are used to estimate total injury occurrences at emergency rooms across the country.

    They examined data for seven years (from 2004 to 2010) involving injuries related to cell phone use for pedestrians in public areas (in other words, not at home).

    A wide variety of injuries were reported.  One 14-year-old boy walking down a road while talking on a cell phone fell 6 to 8 feet off a bridge into a rock-strewn ditch, suffering chest and shoulder injuries.  A 23-year-old man was struck by a car while walking on the middle line of a road and talking on a cell phone, injuring his hip.

    Findings showed that in 2004, an estimated 559 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms for injuries received while using a cell phone.  That number dropped to 256 in 2005, but has risen every year since then.  Meanwhile, the total number of pedestrians estimated to be treated in emergency rooms dropped from 97,000 in 2004 to 41,000 in 2010.

    Nasar said he believes the number of injuries to distracted pedestrians is actually much higher than these statistics suggest.

    He said a more accurate count of injuries to walkers might come from comparing distracted walking to distracted driving, which has been much more heavily studied.

    Nasar compared CPSC estimates for injuries related to drivers distracted by cell phones with actual data from emergency rooms across the country.  Recent research examining increases in traffic accidents related to cell phone use suggests that the number of crash-related injuries in emergency rooms is actually about 1,300 times higher than CPSC national estimates, Nasar said.

    Such data isn’t available to compare CPSC estimates with actual injuries to distracted pedestrians.  But if the pedestrian numbers are similar to those for drivers, then there may have been about 2 million pedestrian injuries related to mobile phone use in 2010.

    Moreover, Nasar said he believes emergency room numbers underestimate actual injuries because not every person who is injured goes to an emergency room. Uninsured people might not go at all. Other people might take care of themselves, or go to an urgent care center.  In addition, not everyone who does go to an emergency room reports using a cell phone.

    “It is impossible to say whether 2 million distracted pedestrians are really injured each year.  But I think it is safe to say that the numbers we have are much lower than what is really happening,” Nasar said.

    As might be expected, young people are the most likely to be injured by distracted walking.  The 21- to 25-year-old age group led the way, with 1,003 total injuries during the seven years covered by this study.  The 16- to 20-year-olds were not far behind, with 985 total injuries.

    For pedestrians, talking on the phone accounted for about 69 percent of injuries, compared to texting, which accounted for about 9 percent.

    Nasar said he doesn’t think the lower texting injury rate is because texting is necessarily safer than talking and walking.  Instead, it is probably because fewer people actually text while walking than talk while on foot.

    The problem with distracted pedestrians is likely to get worse, he said.

    “As more people get cell phones and spend more time using them, the number of injuries is likely to increase as well. Now people are playing games and using social media on their phones too,” he said.

    Nasar said he believes the best way to reverse these numbers is to start changing norms for cell phone use in our society.  And that starts with parents.

    “Parents already teach their children to look both ways when crossing the street.  They should also teach them to put away their cell phone when walking, particularly when crossing a street.”


  9. Study suggests hands-free talking and texting are unsafe

    June 27, 2013 by Ashley

    From the University of Utah press release via EurekAlert!:

    Cellphone DistractionUsing hands-free devices to talk, text or send e-mail while driving is distracting and risky, contrary to what many people believe, says a new University of Utah study issued today by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

    “Our research shows that hands-free is not risk-free,” says University of Utah psychology Professor David Strayer, lead author of the study, which he conducted for the foundation arm of the nonprofit AAA, formerly known as the American Automobile Association.

    These new, speech-based technologies in the car can overload the driver’s attention and impair their ability to drive safely,” says Strayer. “An unintended consequence of trying to make driving safer – by moving to speech-to-text, in-vehicle systems – may actually overload the driver and make them less safe.”

    Just because you can update Facebook while driving doesn’t mean that it is safe to do so,” he adds. “Don’t assume that if your eyes are on the road and your hands are on the wheel that you are unimpaired. If you don’t pay attention then you are a potential hazard on the roadway.”

    In a 2006 study, Strayer first showed talking on a hands-free cell phone was just as distracting as using a hand-held phone while driving, but the message has failed to fully connect with the public, with many people believing hands-free devices are safer. But now, with the backing of the AAA, Strayer hopes people realize they are risking their lives and those of others by using distracting hands-free phone, e-mailing, texting and social media technologies while driving.

    Strayer conducted the study with these other members of the University of Utah Department of Psychology: Joel M. Cooper, research assistant professor of psychology; and doctoral students Jonna Turrill, James Coleman and Nate Medeiros-Ward and Francesco Biondi.


  10. Study suggests listening to music while driving may not affect driver performance

    June 18, 2013 by Ashley

    From the University of Groningen press release via ScienceDaily:

    Young DriverMost drivers enjoy listening to the radio or their favourite CD while driving. Many of them switch on the radio without thinking. But is this safe?

    Experiments carried out by environment and traffic psychologist Ayça Berfu Ünal suggest that it makes very little difference. In fact the effects that were measured turned out to be positive. Music helps drivers to focus, particularly on long, monotonous roads. Ünal will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 10 June 2013.

    Experienced motorists between 25 and 35 years of age are perfectly capable of focusing on the road while listening to music or the radio, even when driving in busy urban traffic. Ünal makes short shrift of the commonly held idea that motorists who listen to music drive too fast or ignore the traffic regulations. Ünal: ‘I found nothing to support this view in my research. On the contrary, our test subjects enjoyed listening to the music and did their utmost to be responsible drivers. They sometimes drove better while listening to music.’ Ünal did not try to find out whether there was a difference between listening to music or talk shows on the radio.

    Monotonous roads

    Although this is not the first piece of research that examines the influence of listening to music or the radio on driving performance, Ünal is the first person to use different traffic situations for her experiments with the simulator. ‘For example, we asked participants to drive behind another vehicle for half an hour on a quiet road. As you would expect, it became very tedious. But the people who listened to music were more focused on driving and performed better than those without music. It’s fairly logical: people need a certain degree of ‘arousal’ (a state of being alert caused by external stimulation of the brain) to stop themselves getting bored. In monotonous traffic situations, music is a good distraction that helps you keep your mind on the road.”

    Safety first

    Motorists need to concentrate harder in busy urban traffic than on quiet roads. Ünal: ‘A motorist’s natural reaction is to turn the sound down or even switch the radio off. This was not allowed during the experiments. As a result, we noted that the participants focused more on the traffic and didn’t remember what had been on the radio afterwards. Safety comes first at moments like this and the participants were able to block out the distraction (in this case the music or radio). This also occurs when drivers are asked to perform a special manoeuvre, such as reversing into a parking space. Our findings do not indicate that people listening to music drive less well in busy traffic. The research showed that background music can actually help motorists to concentrate, both in busy and quiet traffic.’

    No difference in types of music

    Ünal initially wanted to find out whether the type of music made any difference. ‘This wasn’t realistic. Participants forced to listen to music they didn’t like just wanted to get the experiment over and done with. In reality, you only listen to music that you enjoy, so we left the choice to them.’ She did not study whether there was a difference between listening to music and listening to talk shows on the radio. ‘People can listen to music in the background, while they tend to concentrate on the news and put more mental effort into it, particularly if they find an item interesting. That’s why making phone calls in the car is so dangerous: talking on the phone while driving makes huge mental demands on motorists. I’d quite like to study the effect of music and making phone calls while on the bike. The Netherlands is full of cyclists so this would be a highly relevant research subject.’

    Follow-up study of older and younger motorists

    Ünal’s main conclusion is that when people take account of the traffic situation and their own driving skills, music makes very little difference to their performance as drivers: ‘It’s important to know your limits. Some people are much more affected by loud music than others. I’d also be interested to see whether older motorists of seventy and above, and young people learning to drive, cope with the distraction of the radio in the same way. I could imagine that music might be too distracting while you’re just learning to drive. And at the other end of the scale, people’s cognitive capacities diminish as they get older so I’m curious to know how they react to the mental demands of driving at the same time as the listening to music.’