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Audiobooks on the road: Harmless hobby or dangerous distraction?

Nobody would argue that becoming well-read isn't a laudable goal. With most of us stretched for time, audiobooks are a convenient way to tackle your reading list. Popular services like Audible make it possible to listen to your books anywhere - including in the car.

Yet just how safe is the habit of listening to audiobooks behind the wheel? Is it just another form of potentially deadly distraction? In our multitasking modern times, it's important to examine whether this technology should be on the road with drivers.

Distraction on the road

It's well-known that distracted driving is a hazard of epidemic proportions: The NHTSA reported that in 2015, motorist distraction was responsible for 3,477 deaths and 391,000 injuries. Even worse, around 660,000 people use electronic devices while driving every day.

Driving while distracted often makes it harder to respond to hazards. If you're the source of danger, distraction could keep you from noticing what you're doing wrong and making corrections. This often proves fatal to those nearby.

The audiobook question

What does science say about catching up with your favorite story on the way to work? Interestingly, there is no clear answer.

One study assessed driving performance factors such as how long it took motorists to brake for hazards in simulated driving courses. The researchers found that on boring courses, drivers who were listening to audiobooks reacted faster and traveled closer to posted speed limits.

Drivers responded to dangers more slowly on complex courses. When paired with audiobooks, this effect grew even worse. Although some subjects reacted faster when listening, these individuals already had better multitasking skills.

Using common sense

What do these results mean? There seems to be a lot of variation between how individual motorists handle distraction. While you might be able to listen to the latest thriller and drive safely, you may be sharing the road with someone who can't.

As with any subject, there are bound to be studies pointing either way. It doesn't matter whether the scientific opinion is that driving while listening to audiobooks is mostly bad or mostly good. The bottom line is that distraction impacts driver performance. Other factors, like whether you're hunting for a specific chapter or having a passenger do the work, can also change the outcome.

You're the best judge of how much you can handle behind the wheel. Use common sense: If there are other distractions going on around you - like rowdy kids or difficult traffic conditions - turn off the audiobook. The next chapter can wait. Your safety, however, can't.

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