This article was sourced from Paul Roberts: Is it safe to listen to audio books while driving?

We all know that mobile phone use while driving is a safety risk, but what about other activities that people engage in while driving? Our Deputy Director, Associate Professor Paul Roberts, was recently interviewed by ABC radio to provide an assessment of the distraction risk associated with listening to audio books while driving. The question provoked a lot of interest from ABC radio listeners:

Listening to audiobooks while driving in the country is likely to be a great way to stay awake. Whenever we do any kind of cognitive task, particularly one with safety implications, our brain should be engaged to an optimal level but not overloaded. In rural and remote environments, on monotonous roads, drivers can suffer from the phenomenon that is sometimes called passive fatigue. In this state, drivers are not actually tired, but under-engaged, and so we feel sleepy and perform poorly.

It has been known for some time that cognitive activity while driving can mitigate the onset of passive fatigue. A 2008 study with professional truck drivers showed that answering trivia questions while driving prevented driving performance deterioration, and increased alertness.[1] However, the same study showed that other cognitive tasks consumed too much in the way of cognitive resources and caused decrements in driving performance in parallel with their positive effect on alertness.

Similarly, listening to audiobooks in urban driving situations could present problems by consuming too much of the driver’s attention, slowing reaction times. A recent Canadian study where participants were asked to drive in a simulator while listening to audiobooks found that their reactions differed depending on the driving conditions[2]. In a complex environment, people actually reacted more slowly to hazards, and in a simpler environment, they reacted more quickly while listening to audiobooks. The critical thing is to engage people to a level that keeps them at that optimal level of cognitive arousal, but that doesn’t present too much of a cognitive challenge, where they don’t have enough capacity left over to deal with unexpected events while they’re driving.


[1] Oron-Gilad, T, Ronen, A, Shinar, D (2008) Alertness maintaining tasks (AMTs) while driving. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 40, 851-860.
[2] Nowosielski, RJ., Trick, LM, Toxopeus, R (2018) Good distractions: Testing the effects of listening to an audiobook on driving performance in simple and complex road environments. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 111, 202-209.
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