Did you know that aggressive rock and rap has the power to make you drive badly? It’s true, according to a new paper from Israeli researchers. In response, they developed their own mellow-sounding “alternative in-car music background” and tested it out on some listeners. Results were, let’s say, mixed.
About.com tells me that the number one driving song is “Radar Love” by Golden Earring (#1) and “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel (#2). How do people even remember those songs, both from the early '70s? The British New Musical Express offers the five most dangerous songs to drive to, because they reportedly raise your blood pressure. (What, no vote for "I Can't Drive 55" by Sammy Hagar? Personally, it’s “Umbrella” by Rihanna that makes me a candidate for a coronary. And not in a good way.) Here's the list:
- Beastie Boys – “Sabotage”
- The Prodigy – “Firestarter”
- Papa Roach – “To Be Loved”
- Kanye West – “Stronger”
- Rachmaninoff – “Prelude in C Sharp Minor”
I talked to Brodsky via Skype from Israel, and he told me that his current work stems from an original 2002 study that simply associated faster-tempo music with driving faster. "It was really blown out of proportions," he said. "It became a huge deal, even the subject of a "Saturday Night Live" skit, plus articles in Psychology Today and places like that. So we thought about what to do next — should we identify categories of music that were safer, like religious music, Motown or something like that? Instead we decided to test the impact of soothing music that wasn't known, with no memory trace, in real, on-the-road situations."
Everybody tunes in to music in the car, unless you’re a talk radio junkie or something. Australian women report that listening to the car radio is “the most frequent propulsion-unrelated activity initiated by drivers.” But a WK and Wales police accident report covering 5,740 fatal accidents between 1989 and 1995 found that changing stations or a CD was the third most common cause of distraction leading to the collision.
And the type of music matters. A third of drivers cited for traffic violations in a 1999 Quicken Insurance survey reported listening to “fast-paced music of loud intensity.” Worse, ACF Car Finance said that 73 percent of those charged with speeding in 2008 had been listening to “loud rock” or “fast dance music” at the time. The U.K.-based Daily Telegraph found that a fifth of respondents said that rap music while driving leads to “aggressive conduct.” If you need a scientific citation, there’s a 1996 study that found that loud music decreases response time to randomly presented red brake lights.
Brodsky and Kizner concluded that high-complexity music — that Wagner, for instance — is “stimulative” and low-complexity music (The Carpenters, below?) is “sedative.” So they took a bunch of vocal-free tracks recorded by professional studio players, a mix of “easy listening, soft rock and light snappy smooth jazz — with a touch of ethnic world-music flavor.” Not exactly today’s hit parade, is it?
They played a 30-minute tape of this stuff for a test group, and were told it was perfect for a “social reception” (i.e., as background music) and much less suitable for driving. They then took their experiment on the road, measuring the drivers’ response to their own music — everything from “Jewish-Soul” (remember, this is Israel) to “American/British Pop-Rock”) — versus the new background music. Not surprisingly, the respondents liked their own music better, which the researchers associate with familiarity. But they also paid more attention to it, which of course means that they’re using up cognitive space that might be better directed to the road ahead.
The next step was to have drivers take 10 trips with the background music. A chart shows they were barely paying attention to it all by the end of those journeys, but “positive affect” remained relatively high — they were getting some mood lift out of it, whether subliminal or not. The researchers’ conclusion? Background music can be “a form of self-mediated intervention for drivers.” A less benign use would be forcing thrill-crazed teenagers to listen to The Hollyridge Strings instead of Kanye West. One could easily imagine a parent-friendly system that would limit a car’s speed, make kids’ cellphones inoperable, and take control of the stereo, dialing in Mantovani instead of the Beastie Boys. The safety music could be implanted on a chip and embedded into the car's entertainment system — hit a button, kill the speed metal, and let soothing waves of calm wash over you.
Since the period covered in the research report, Brodsky says he and his colleagues have gotten additional funding from the Israeli road safety agency, enabling two years of research with 17- and 18-year-old drivers using in-car data recorders. They listen to the background music while the recorders track acceleration and braking. "We are seeing huge statistically significant changes in aggressive behavior while driving," Brodsky said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that the drivers like the music better."
To test the researchers' hypothesis, I put on the soothing sounds of The John Renbourn Group performing "The Plains of Waterloo" just after dropping my two teenagers off at the mall with $100 of my money. Amazingly, my blood pressure immediately went down and I found myself hyper alert to the rules of the road.
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