Is turning on an audiobook during your morning commute just another example of the dangers of distracted driving, or can help keep you alert and driving safely? Both, apparently.
To explore this question, researchers from University of Guelph, in Canada, had participants complete a driving simulation task, either in silence or while listening to an audiobook. For different participants, the researchers were able to simulate a more complex or more simple drive by changing the density of traffic, the surrounding scenery, and the windiness of the road.
During the simulation, people occasionally had to deal with unexpected hazards like being cut off by other cars. The researchers used people’s response time to hazards as a measure of their driving performance.
It turned out that listening to audiobooks did influence how quickly people reacted to hazards, but the effect was different depending on context. In simple driving conditions, people had faster reaction times when they were listening to the audiobook. In the complex driving conditions, on the other hand, listening to the audiobook impaired people’s driving performance.
Intuitively, there’s a certain sense to these results. In understimulating driving conditions, audiobooks could help people stay alert and focused. But in more complicated and challenging conditions, audiobooks could prove to be an unwanted distraction.
The researchers also found evidence of individual differences in how listening to audiobooks influenced people’s driving. In particular, people who scored high on a certain test of working memory called an OSPAN task tended to benefit more from listening to audiobooks.
Overall, these results suggest that there isn’t a clear answer as to whether listening to audiobooks is helpful or harmful while driving. Instead, it seems that audiobooks can push people’s driving performance in either direction depending on the driving conditions and the person in question.