Rachel Neiman
May 14, 2009, Updated September 12, 2012

The number one chart tune for safe driving, based on research from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, is Love Song by Taylor Swift.

Fast music makes you drive faster — and less safely. Although that statement might seem obvious, for decades the effects of beats per minute on miles per hour have been downplayed or ignored outright – to our peril. Now, an Israeli researcher is proposing a novel solution: music to drive safely to.

Music psychologist Dr. Warren Brodsky, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has created the prototype of a music CD specifically aimed at high-risk driving situations involving late night/early morning after-party fatigue.

According to Brodsky, modern man lives in an environment in which, most of the time, things are done to music. “We ride, eat, fall asleep, dance, romance, daydream, exercise, celebrate, protest, purchase, worship, meditate, and procreate – all with music playing in the background,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Even more absurd, he points out, is the fact that today’s most popular location for hearing music — for centuries a social experience — is not in a concert hall with other aficionados, or the front parlor with family and friends, but rather, alone in the car.

“It’s not surprising that consumers outfit their vehicle as an audio-environment,” says Brodsky. But with higher and higher quality sound systems comes a co-dependent relationship between driving and music, wherein music intensity (volume) and tempo become indispensable to the driving experience. And when does this relationship form? “Early in one’s driving history during the mid-late teen years,” he explains.

Designing music to keep drivers on track

Brodsky contends that alternatives could, in principle, modify driving behavior. In 2002, based on his research, Britain’s RAC Foundation compiled a “Top 10” list of medium-tempo pieces that promote safe driving behavior. This year, British company ACF Car Finance issued an updated music chart to support safer driving, listing the week’s Top 10 in order of tempo. As of March 2009, ACF Car Finance’s top pop pick for driver safety was the song Love Story by Taylor Swift.

The song’s actual position on the UK charts was number five. Flo Rida’s Right Round, which was top of the UK list, ranked a dismal eighth in terms of motor safety.

Though amused that his prior work has entered pop culture — “Jay Leno joked about it on The Tonight Show” — Brodsky is more interested with the next stage in his research which concerns the emotional state of drivers listening to music.

“For example, while listening to a piece of music, drivers are immersed in much cognitive work including aural analysis and processing of the music components at various levels related to understanding, operations of short- and long-term memory, emotions, and of course extra-musical associations which continually surface from music stimuli,” he explains. In short, music doesn’t take your mind off things, it adds stuff on.

Brodsky is now exploring the use of original music that is free of extra associations and memories. In 2007, he commissioned Israeli composer Micha Kizner to remix music tracks in accordance with a scientific design based on his previous research findings.

The result was the first prototype of a music disk that he calls the “optimal aural background for vehicular driving among young drivers”.

Behavior modification via music

Brodsky is proposing research that would be conducted together with government-sanctioned instructors that run Ministry of Education-sponsored workshops at high schools (11th-12th grades), and would employ technologies such as an in-vehicle data recorder (IVDR) monitoring systems.

If funding can be secured, the goal would be to offer a new solution for reducing the number of accidents and fatalities involving young drivers.

Statistical data on road safety in Israel indicates that drivers age 16-24 account for the highest level of accidents and fatalities. For example, says Brodsky, in the year 2003, there were 181 severely wounded young drivers and 25 fatalities among under-18 year-olds, as well as 567 severely wounded drivers and 116 fatalities among those between the ages of 19-24.

These figures reflect an overall 2.5 percent of severe accidents and 17.5% fatalities for these ages versus 6% severe accidents and 1.2% fatalities for the rest of the total population driving on Israeli roads.

“While music may not be the cause, it is certainly possible that music is more of a contributing factor than currently perceived,” he says. “Ironically, this factor could easily be undermined by common sense. If not, then there’s a need for behavioral modification through awareness and availability of scientifically valid listening alternatives.”

Teen drivers: Unsafe at any speed

Interestingly, the most common traffic violations of the 18-24 group were speeding (37%), and lane weaving (20%). Both correlate with behavior typical of drivers under the influence of up-tempo music, according to Brodsky’s previous research.

Brodsky authored a 2002 study that documented the effect of music tempo on driving. Using driving simulators, he explored acceleration, perceived speed estimate, and traffic violations under conditions with no background music, slow-paced background music (40-70bpm), medium-paced background music (85-110bpm), and fast-paced background music (120-140bpm).

The results indicated that, as the tempo of background music increased, so did driving speed and the frequency of traffic violations including vehicular accidents and collisions, lane crossings, weaving, and disregarded red traffic lights. The study also found that faster drivers demonstrated significantly more at-risk driving behaviors with fast-paced background music than did slower drivers.

“Traffic researchers and investigators continue to close their eyes to the suggested interactions, and even belittle such idiosyncratic behavior as if they were simply some short-lived fashion,” says Brodsky.

“This situation is especially distressing when considering that current lifestyles place youngsters aged between 16-24 behind the steering wheel more often than in the past; that young drivers regularly choose to travel with music playing in the vehicle, and plan in advance which CDs to take with them; and that the music listened to while driving is highly energetic, aggressive music consisting of a fast-tempo and accentuated beat played at strong intensity levels of elevated frequencies and volumes,” he adds.

Brodsky is currently seeking funding for his new research.

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