While driving to work, “Eternal Flames” by the Bangles comes on the radio and the next thing I know, I am back on a beach in Lanai, reliving my honeymoon. I see stretches of clear blue water and pineapples growing all around, and …
Look out! I almost hit the car in front of me. That was a close call.
Depending on what music is being played, a person’s driving may improve or result in costly mistakes, according to Warren Brodsky, a professor and director of music psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
In his 2013 study with Zach Slor, Brodsky, a Philadelphia native, tracked 85 drivers — all teens who each had their license at least seven months.
The participants drove with an observer six times each for a total of more than four hours. While behind the wheel, they sometimes listened to their favorite music. On other trips, they listened to the background music provided by the observers or no music at all.
When their favorite music was playing, the young drivers were involved in the greatest number of miscalculations, motor vehicle violations and incidents of aggressive driving, according to the study, “Background Music as a Risk Factor for Distraction among Young-Novice Drivers.”
The study, funded by the Israel National Road Safety Authority, focused on young drivers, because they tend to have the most accidents and fatalities, Brodsky said.
He explained the results in his 402-page book, “Driving with Music: Cognitive-Behavioural Implications,” which was released in April.
“The research is irrefutable that listening to music in the car affects the way you drive,” particularly if it is music that “you are involved with,” Brodsky said. If the song jogs a memory or if it frequently changes tempo and volume, then it is distracting you from concentrating on your driving, Brodsky said in a phone interview last week.
It doesn’t matter if the music is rap, hip hop, classical or rock. If it takes a driver to another place or finds the driver singing along karaoke style and tapping on the steering wheel, the motorist easily could be changing lanes without realizing it or reacting too late to avoid a crash, Brodsky said.
When certain songs are played, Brodsky said he finds himself back in military basic training. The next thing he knows, he’s thinking about his three years in the Israel Defense Forces Entertainment Groups, playing electric bass guitar.
Other times, another song he has never heard comes on the radio and Brodsky tries to understand the lyrics, once again not concentrating on the road.
But Brodsky did not recommend that drivers turn off all music. After all, he said, if a doctor said a patient had high cholesterol, the patient wouldn’t stop eating. Besides, driving without music tends to allow a driver’s mind to wander away from the road, Brodsky said.
Instead, he recommends drivers listen to music without lyrics (Philip Glass, anyone?) but with a steady rhythm. The music should not be familiar to the driver.
This background music “allows us to stay in a certain kind of emotional place” rather than pulling our mind from the road, Brodsky said.
The ideal car music has no vocals, is not a cover of a popular tune, is well-balanced and has modest rhythmic qualities and tempos, Brodsky said.
Whether it’s texting, eating, putting on makeup or talking to someone else in the car, a driver has much to overcome in order to keep his mind focused on driving.
“We basically are not concentrating on our driving” when something else is going on, Brodsky said.
But people can listen to music while driving, Brodsky said. But, try to remember, he said, “You are not jogging. You are not in a spinning class on a bike. You are in a car.”
Suzanne Pollak is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.