Are podcasts a danger to driving?
It’s fair to say that most of us, at some point or another, have listened to a podcast.
In fact, 12 million UK motorists have listened to podcasts while they drive, according to our latest research.
But have we ever stopped to question how safe this is? It’s not uncommon for music with a high BPM to encourage you to put your foot down and drive more quickly.
But what impact does listening to something like podcasts or audiobooks have on concentration while you’re behind the wheel?
What happens to your brain while driving?
Before delving into that, it’s helpful to understand a little bit of how the brain works when we’re driving.
Your brain has four lobes:
Frontal lobe – this is your alert system to danger (also memory, emotions and impulse control)
Occipital lobe – this responds to all things visual, so everything you can see
Parietal lobe – this processes sensory information – in a car this will be your braking and steering
Temporal lobe – this lobe responds to things you hear, your auditory input (i.e. radio and podcasts).
When you’re driving, your brain is multitasking. You’re steering, braking, changing gears and looking around you.
You're listening to the sounds around you on the road and other traffic, as well as any audio you have playing in the car.
This uses all the lobes in your brain. And as incredible as brains are, they’re not great at multitasking.
When we add in unnecessary tasks like listening to podcasts, using our phones or in-car systems, your brain can’t focus on all these tasks, and freezes.
So how distracting are podcasts when driving?
Podcasts are more popular than you might think. They provide a narrative to your journey whether long or short.
They can see you in fits of laughter if you’re one of the 24% who listen to comedy. With tears ready to tumble down your cheeks if you’re one of the 7% who listen to human interest.
Or perhaps you’re one of the 8% who prefer to listen to politics and shout your frustrations at the road ahead.
Maybe you like hearing about gruesome crimes and join the 14% who listen to true crime.
We asked the motoring public about their experience with podcasts. More than 12 million drivers said they have listened to a podcast when driving.
And nearly two thirds (61%) said they found them to be distracting.
There’s no doubt about it, podcasts can be engrossing. In fact, one in five (22%) drivers have said they’ve forgotten parts of their journey while listening to a podcast.
More worryingly, nearly a fifth (18%) admitted to becoming tired and sleepy, and nearly one in eight (13%) said they struggled to concentrate.
Whichever type of podcast you prefer, how distracting they are all depends on the type of drive you’re having.
What does our expert say?
Our expert, Dr Lisa Dorn, Associate Professor of Driver Behaviour at Cranfield University, has shared some insights into the effects podcasts and audiobooks can have on driving:
“The presence of cityscapes, curves and traffic in a complex drive can significantly contribute to the mental workload experienced by the driver.
“The additional stream of information when listening to a podcast or audiobook makes it more likely that the driver will be distracted in a complex drive situation.”
However, Dr Dorn also says:
“Listening to a radio station is likely to be less distracting than listening to a podcast or audiobook.
“These activities [podcasts and audiobooks] may actually improve driving performance in simple environments. This is not the case in complex environments, however.”
Further to that, Dr Dorn explains that simple drives can become boring. When we’re bored when we’re driving, we tend to speed up for more stimulation.
Playing a podcast or audiobook in these situations can take the place of that increase of speed, and thus make the drive safer.
So when driving a familiar route that’s not complex, podcasts and audiobooks might actually help concentration.
But if you’re driving somewhere that’s busier and more complex, they’re likely to be a hindrance. This all goes back to how the brain works and the way the brain freezes when it’s doing a lot of multitasking.
Confused about what’s safest?
You’re not alone. One in 10 (10%) UK drivers said they’re confused what the safest form of entertainment is while driving.
Ultimately the safest entertainment all depends on you, and the type of drive you’re doing.
As Dr Dorn alluded to, if you’re doing a complex drive like in a city or somewhere busy, then maybe tune into the radio. For other drives, podcasts may actually help you focus on the road.
Think back to the lobes of the brain – when you’re doing complex driving, you’re having to focus more.
What you want to avoid is making your brain multitask beyond what’s necessary. Save that for the easier drive where there’s less chaos.