How Music Impacts Your Driving: It’s a Bittersweet Symphony

It’s road trip season, so it’s time to start making the ultimate playlist. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “without music, life would be a mistake.” Let’s be honest, a road trip without music is like a day without sunshine. Openbay is all about getting you road trip-ready, so we took a deep dive into how music impacts your driving to get you from point A to B as safely and enjoyably as possible.

If your go-to driving playlist has some Bruce Springsteen on it, you’re definitely not alone. According to an IMR, Inc and Car Care Council survey of 25,000 US vehicle owners ages 18-65, here’s the top artist choices for a long drive:

Bruce Springsteen 24.0%
Keith Urban 16.4%
Bruno Mars 16.1%
Jimmy Buffett 15.7%
Lady Gaga 11.5%
Taylor Swift 8.6%
Beyonce 7.7%

Rich White, Executive Director of the Car Care Council, says, “It was no surprise that Bruce Springsteen, the guy who wrote ‘Cadillac Ranch’ and ‘Pink Cadillac,’ would be the top choice. Surprisingly enough, “The Boss”, a notorious rock ‘n’ roll car-culture storyteller didn’t get his driver’s license until he was 24. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something about which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up! That’s how good I am,” Springsteen said.

Whether you like to live life in the fast lane or take it easy, music can affect your driving in myriad ways. Some studies say, it’s only rock and roll, and listening to music can actually ease the stress, boredom, and anxiety that can occur when you’re stuck in traffic. Others say that music can help improve focus and concentration. Other research, however, reveals that the emotions associated with music can be distracting or cause us to drive faster and more aggressively.

When You Can’t Stop the Feeling

Apparently, we’re born this way. Research links music and neuroscience, showing that “music stimulates emotions through specific brain circuits. Listening to music can increase the amount of dopamine, a specific neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain and helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. We can easily see how music and the brain engage mood and emotion when an infant smiles and begins to dance to a rhythm. He is experiencing an uplifted mood of joy from the music.” In fact, our brains respond differently to ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ music. One study showed that after hearing a short piece of music, participants were more likely to interpret a neutral expression as happy or sad, to match the tone of the music they heard.

Is music really that deeply ingrained in us? According to an article posted by 16 Personalities, a website devoted to dissecting and interpreting personalities, “For many of us, our taste in music is an integral part of our identity – so much so that, to a certain extent, what we listen to is who we are. The songs of our youth, heard a thousand times, fill our headspace with stray lyrics and infectious grooves, creating a filter for the way we see, hear, and understand the world from then on out.” It’s not surprising that a study of couples who spent time getting to know each other found that looking at each other’s top 10 favorite songs actually provided fairly reliable predictions as to the listener’s personality traits.

Hit Me Baby One More Time

Let’s say you like to get your groove on in gridlock. No harm, no foul, right? Not so fast. Another study looked at the impact of music’s tempo on driver behavior, finding that drivers who listen to uptempo tunes have more than twice as many accidents as those listening to slower music and were twice as likely to go through a red light as those who were not listening to any music at all.  Not just tempo, but volume has an impact too. Newfoundland’s Memorial University found that a driver’s reaction time can be decreased by as much as 20 percent when loud music is played.

Does your music choice change based on your mood, or does your mood change based on the music? Professor Warren Brodsky, director of music psychology at Ben-Gurion University, claims that the problem isn’t the genre or the song, it’s the driver’s emotional connection to the music. “The car is the only place in the world where you can die just because you’re listening to the wrong kind of music.” Brodsky says, “When a driver becomes emotional, they are distracted from the road. A song that inspires happiness, sadness, nostalgia or even simply high-energy toe-tapping can cause a driver to become unfocused.” Not to mention, we are always thinking ahead to the next tune we’re going to play, clicking through our Spotify or changing the volume dial on our dashboard. Listening to music while driving certainly presents a variety of physical distractions.

Psychologicalscience.org shares a study with a sunnier outlook, pointing out that music can have a positive effect on driving performance – for experienced drivers. The experiment claims that, “people need a certain degree of ‘arousal’ to stop themselves from getting bored behind the wheel in monotonous traffic situation… Music is a good distraction that helps you keep your mind on the road.”

Isn’t it ironic then, that the same study showed that music has a negative effect on younger, inexperienced drivers who are “more prone to distraction as they are less efficient in processing the visual information needed to drive safely while engaging in other non-driving tasks – such as music listening.” Teens with little driving experience made more driving errors (speeding, aggression and weaving) when they were listening to music in this study.

Music, the “universal language of mankind”, is there with you through all of life’s journeys. But choose your road trip music wisely, especially if you’re an inexperienced driver, because evidence points to potential distracted driving and delayed reaction times from certain kinds of music. Openbay is here to get you road-trip ready, so if you need a tune-up, AC repair, wheel alignment, or any other car care needs, try us out at openbay.com or download the free app and start earning rewards today.

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