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U of G study finds audio books improve focus on long, boring drives

Using U of G’s DRIVE lab simulator, researchers projected simple and complex environments, including traffic, scenery and curving roads
Prof. Lana Trick in the driving simulator. Supplied photo

Listening to an audio book while driving can help you stay focused during long drives or monotonous commutes, according to new research from the University of Guelph.

Many collisions related to fatigue happen on boring drives, said Lana Trick, a professor in U of G’s Department of Psychology who studies attention, driving and collision risk.

“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,” she said.

“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 audio book.

The findings were published recently in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention. It’s the first study to investigate whether audio books could be used to improve driving performance; previous studies compared audiobooks to other common car distractions such as using a cellphone or texting.

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 audio book while driving.

The researchers used standard measures of driving performance, including braking response time to sudden hazards, speed and lateral position.

Overall, the study found that listening to an audio book improved performance during uneventful drives where the subject risks experiencing mental “underload.”

During simple drives, people listening to audio books braked faster in response to hazards. Audio books also helped reduce speeding, a common driver response to mental underload, the study said.

The findings, said Trick, are particularly useful for people with long daily commutes on familiar routes or on long stretches such as rural roads.

During complex drives with various hazards, listening to audio books can be an added distraction for people who are poor at multi-tasking, the study found. People able to switch easily between tasks are not negatively affected, it said.

Trick said although she’s intrigued by the results of her study, she’s curious about whether using various types of audio books might affect driver performance differently.

“We started out with Harry Potter – nothing too complicated – but is there a magic type of book? Some types of books might be too convoluted.”