Is listening to the radio whilst driving safe?

11 September 2018

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Question

I drive to work, is listening to the radio whilst driving safe? How does it compare to using a mobile phone? Is hands-free OK?

Answer

Izzie Clarke from The Naked Scientists had this question for driving psychologist, Helen Keyes from Anglia Ruskin... Should we be telling all our listeners who are driving to turn us off?! 

Helen: Fortunately not, we’re lucky. So there is one instance in which listening to the radio can be very dangerous for driving. Listening to speech is fine, in fact in some cases and in some ways, it can keep us awake and stimulate us so we can have preventative factors. But there is a caveat to that. We shouldn't listen to things that are heavily visual. So when we are listening, for example, to sports matches on the radio, this is a really bad idea. Simply because we're recruiting the same parts of our brain. So when you're using your visual imagination to visualise what the commentator is talking about it takes our visual attention directly from the road and we know that this is really hazardous.

Chris: So just when people fling their hands up and go “Yeah!”

Helen: It's not quite that dramatic! It’s just that any sort of visualisation task is a really bad idea when were driving. And the second part of that question was about how it compares to mobile phone use. Mobile phone use is quite interesting and we like to usually compare it to having a conversation with a passenger. So, mobile phone use is a lot more dangerous than having a conversation with a passenger and indeed, you're about four times more likely to be involved in a crash if you're on a mobile phone compared to speaking with a passenger. And we know that there's no difference to using a hands-free set, so I think that would surprise some people. It’s not necessarily about looking at your phone or using your phone, it's about the speech.  Producing speech and listening to speech is quite complex. It seems easy to us because it's so effortless. That's merely because the brain devotes so many resources to speech perception. But actually, when we're talking on a mobile phone we know that there's a higher incidence of questions being asked and answered and there's a higher number of utterances per minute when on mobile versus talking to a passenger. So that makes it more dangerous - it takes up more of our resources. But secondly, it's really interesting: if you are speaking with a passenger in your car, they will moderate their conversation to the road environment. So if you're a driver and you're approaching a roundabout and your passenger is speaking with you, they will automatically stop speaking or they may even talk about the traffic: say, “Oh look here's a traffic jam”.

Chris: Or if they’re my wife, they flinch when they see something coming.

Helen: Flinching is very helpful!

Chris: It is,  because it gets your attention, doesn't it? It makes you think “ooh” and then you realise you are getting a bit close to that.

Helen: It does, so obviously, if your wife is on the other end of the phone she may be just asking you a question and she wouldn't be moderating her conversational behaviour. So do not speak on a mobile phone, including hands-free. We are really trying to push to get hands- free to be made as illegal as using your phone in cars, because there's no difference there.

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