Driving to the Wrong Music Can Kill, Says Professor

Music may have charms to soothe the savage beast – or lead to human error and even road rage, warns Ben-Gurion University music psychologist Warren Brodsky.

Ofer Vaknin

We all know music that lifts us to ecstasies, irritates us, or even inspires us to violence. And if you're listening to the wrong music while driving, it can be deadly, suggests Prof. Warren Brodsky, director of music psychology in the Department of the Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“The car is the only place in the world you can die just because you’re listening to the wrong kind of music,” says Brodsky, who recently published the first textbook on how music can affect driving habits, "Driving with Music: Cognitive-Behavioral Implications" (Ashgate Publishing Company).

No, he doesn't mean you hate the band so much that you drive into a tree. Nor is it that a rollicking ditty about, say, strangling kittens can inspire us to road rage (or human error at the wheel) more than a Brahms sonata.

It's whether the song inspires you in particular to negative emotion. "Whether it’s Beethoven, Basie or Bieber is irrelevant," the professor says. "Ideally drivers should choose tunes that do not trigger distracting thoughts, memories, emotions, or hand drumming along to the beat while driving.”

Forget texting at the wheel. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver inattention, including music distraction, is a factor in more than a quarter of the 1.2 million crashes per year in the United States.

Just for the year 2009, the NHTSA statistics indicate that more than 5,400 people were killed, and over half a million people were injured in motor vehicle crashes attributed to distracted driving.

Brodsky's book also describes research on safer and "unsafe" driving songs, and the latter-day plague known as "car-aoke".

His findings may seem intuitive to anybody who ever listened to music and noted a mood change, or put on specific music to create that mood change. But actually, the scientific effect of music on driving had been little studied.

Some work has been done. A 2012 paper by a Dutch team headed by Dr. Marjolein van der Zwaag, published in the NCBI, based on subjective information, decided that music did influence mood, which influences driving, but did not impair driving performance in high demand situations. The following year, her team demonstrated that if you're driving and losing your mind, and want to change your mood before you (say) run somebody over - an abrupt switch in music, not a gradual one, is the ticket.

Critiquing her work in his book, Brodsky shows that much depends on what you switch to. And, he writes: "the optimal music for drivers to listen to are pieces with a moderate level of emotional energy (as intense emotional qualities of either positive or negative valence causes unwanted maladaptive driver behaviors)" – meaning, choose the wrong song and you can just make matters worse. That is good to know.

A great deal of science has been done on how music affects our physiology. But how do you choose the right song for you, in today's world of endless choices? Most drivers don't have the self-awareness to choose appropriate playlists, let alone under changing circumstances on the road ("Songs for Sam not to kill anybody today" isn't helpful), says Brodsky.

Some research is being done on monitoring driver physiology, for instance through sensors embedded in steering wheels (which would notice stress, for instance). Once "driver deficiencies", as Brodsky puts it, is detected, an "affective music player" could respond.

But until this whole system is invented and installed in a car near you, you can try to be proactive and think in advance which songs make you want to pat puppies and which make you want to drive like a lunatic.