If you lose your attention behind the wheel, you can lose your life. But listening to a good story during long or boring drives can keep your responses sharp, says a pioneering study published by U of G psychology professor Lana Trick in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.
“Nature abhors a vacuum, and it also abhors an empty brain; your brain will start wandering and wanting to do other things like pick up a cellphone,” Trick says.
“We wondered if there was a way to distract people just enough to enhance performance.”
Trick, along with researcher Ryan Toxopeus and master’s student Robert Nowosielski, tested how drivers responded to different driving conditions while listening to a Harry Potter audiobook.
Using U of G’s DRIVE lab simulator – a car body surrounded by screens – the researchers projected simple and complex environments, including traffic, scenery and curving roads. Some participants just drove, and others listened to an audiobook while driving.
The researchers tested braking response time to sudden hazards, speed and lateral position.
Overall, the study found that listening to an audiobook improved performance during uneventful drives in which the subject risks experiencing mental “underload.”
During simple drives, people listening to audiobooks braked faster in response to hazards. Audiobooks also helped reduce speeding, a common driver response to mental underload.
Trick says the findings are particularly useful for people with long daily commutes on familiar routes or on long stretches such as rural roads.