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I was at a red light the other day and the car next to me was vibrating so much that even my vehicle was shaking from his "musical" noise. I could hardly hear the sound of my engine despite the fact that the windows were closed on both vehicles. In addition to being irritating and annoying, is this not considered dangerous driving behaviour? – Kris in Windsor

Back in 1989, the U.S. military were trying to force drug lord Manuel Noriega's surrender as he sought asylum at the papal embassy in Panama. How does that relate to some dude playing club tunes too loud at a stoplight in Windsor? Good question. Well, prevented from using their more common public methods of coercion, they resorted to psychological: they pumped out pop hits as if American Idol had arrived early, blaring tracks such as New Kids On The Block's Hangin' Tough in the hope of beating him down.

Apparently it was the Vatican who asked the military men to turn it down, but Noriega surrendered shortly thereafter. While that seems a rather audacious attempt, it's surely not hard for any of us to imagine that loud music does affect our behavior. But is it necessarily for the worse, and could it be dangerous when we drive?

While Transport Canada states there is no clear evidence that listening to music when driving is a safety issue, it admits that activities such as scrolling though menus and selecting songs, or reading song titles and lyrics from a display can be dangerously distracting.

Music that prevents us from hearing sirens or other road traffic is also clearly a hazard.

When reviewing the volume of research on the cognitive effects of music, some studies show that it's a distraction, some suggest it is not, and others reveal that music can be advantageous in helping a driver stay alert and awake, or to cope with stressful driving situations.

"Driver distraction isn't limited to just cellphones, but there is no easy answer to whether listening to music is distracting to a driver because there are so many variables and individual factors. Volume, the type of music, whether it's your preference or not, the tempo, and lyrics could all make a difference," says Dr. William Berg, with Miami University's department of kinesiology and health.

Dr. Berg and his colleagues conducted a simulated driving study in which participants who were engaged in cellphone conversations displayed reduced braking times. The introduction of moderate-volume music while cellphone conversations occurred, however, did not further delay reaction time.

Researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland have studied the effects of sound types and volume on simulated driving. "It wouldn't matter what kind of noise or music an individual is listening to. If they had it on loud, our research has shown that the person's reaction and movement times would be adversely affected. Whether they're listening to Beethoven and Bach or Black Sabbath, anytime it's loud, if someone steps in front of the car they're going to take longer to hit the brakes," says Dr. David Behm, associate dean of graduate studies and research at Memorial University's school of human kinetics and recreation.

So why does noise volume affect reaction times?

"The processing takes up some of your cognitive resources. In this case you have a number of things to process: your driving, which is the motor task; the environment around you, are there pedestrians, or in Newfoundland for instance are there any moose jumping out on the highway in front of you? Then you're also processing the noise or music. So there is a balance or battle going on in your head, and the more you have to process, the less quickly you're going to react," says Behm.

Does the type of music you listen to while driving make a difference?

"Basically we got exactly the same results whether it was pan flute music or rock 'n' roll. If it was really loud the movement time and reaction time was adversely affected, and they got into more accidents when doing a simulated driving task. The really interesting thing we found in this study was the male/female difference. For guys it didn't matter whether it was loud or soft, if they listened to hard rock, they lost focus and drove more poorly. But for women, it didn't affect their driving unless the hard rock was loud," says Behm.

Is there any indication that music could enhance driver performance?

"We didn't find that because we only used two different levels. But there is what's called an arousal performance curve. At very low levels of arousal, you don't perform well. An athlete who is almost asleep, for example, won't do as well as when they're psyched up. On the other hand, if you're too aroused, your performance goes down. So for each individual there is an optimal state of arousal. Typically it's a bell curve and somewhere in the middle is where you have optimal performance," says Behm.

So while some drivers may be able to handle louder music and in fact it might even improve their performance, Behm says no one can listen to really loud music and perform to their optimal. If you enjoy listening to music while driving, for safety sake, it should be kept at moderate intensities or volumes.

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