If you’re one of those drivers that swears by opening a window and listening to music in order to stay awake – think again.
When I started the Investigate everything blog posts, I wanted to highlight the valiant efforts of scientists who investigate the banalities of everyday Western life. So, in my first Investigate Everything post, I wrote about the dangers of walking while texting. And today, I am writing about another strange habit that the human species has managed to pick up: driver sleepiness countermeasures.
You know what I’m talking about. There you are, on the open road, minding your own business, when Morpheus, the God of sleep, starts to beckon. Refusing to heed his call, you Google the closest coffee shop or motel, only to realize that the next town is an hour away. So what do you do? You turn up the stereo, crack open a window, and hope your eyes won’t get too dry from trying not to blink.
Does this technique actually work? A team of Swedish and French scientists from Stockholm University and the University of Bordeaux looked into it, and found that, despite what you may believe, opening the driver’s window and playing music won’t help you stay awake at the wheel.
In the study, published in the October edition of the Journal of Sleep Research, 24 participants were asked to drive along a Swedish highway for 90 minutes during the day and during the night.
The scientists prevented eight of those participants from using any sleepiness countermeasures to stay awake. The remaining 16 participants were allowed to either open the driver’s window by 0.8 inches (about 2cm) or listen to music for ten minutes. The participants had to perform each countermeasure once, waiting ten minutes between each.
During the daytime trials, the drivers were only allowed to initiate sleepiness countermeasures after 20 minutes of driving. During the nighttime trials, on the other hand, they could open a window or turn on the radio two minutes after starting to feel sleepy.
In order to assess how tired the drivers were, an observer sat in the passenger seat, and asked them to verbally rate their own sleepiness. The researchers also recorded the duration of the driver’s blinking using a horizontal and a vertical electrooculogram, a machine that records eye movements.
The researchers found that listening to music moderately improved the drivers’ alertness, but the effect did not last very long. And opening a window had no effect at all.
The authors specify that it is possible that these tactics would have been more effective if, say, the driver had been allowed to sign along to the music, or if they could have opened the window by more than 0.8 inches. But the scientists conclude by saying that, for the moment, they cannot endorse these practices as a means of staying awake while driving.
In the end, everyone is different, so if you think listening to music while letting your hair blow in the wind helps you keep that groove in your step and your eyes on the road, then by all means, groove on.
Do yourself a favor though: Next time you find yourself drifting off at the wheel, park your car on the side of the road and take a nap, just in case. And whatever you do, please, please don’t listen to this guy. Or this guy.
SCHWARZ, J., INGRE, M., FORS, C., ANUND, A., KECKLUND, G., TAILLARD, J., PHILIP, P., & ÅKERSTEDT, T. (2012). In-car countermeasures open window and music revisited on the real road: popular but hardly effective against driver sleepiness Journal of Sleep Research, 21 (5), 595-599 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2012.01009.x