The current research examined the influence of loud music on driving performance, and whether mental effort mediated this effect. Participants (N=69) drove in a driving simulator either with or without listening to music. In order to test whether music would have similar effects on driving performance in different situations, we manipulated the simulated traffic environment such that the driving context consisted of both complex and monotonous driving situations. In addition, we systematically kept track of drivers' mental load by making the participants verbally report their mental effort at certain moments while driving. We found that listening to music increased mental effort while driving, irrespective of the driving situation being complex or monotonous, providing support to the general assumption that music can be a distracting auditory stimulus while driving. However, drivers who listened to music performed as well as the drivers who did not listen to music, indicating that music did not impair their driving performance. Importantly, the increases in mental effort while listening to music pointed out that drivers try to regulate their mental effort as a cognitive compensatory strategy to deal with task demands. Interestingly, we observed significant improvements in driving performance in two of the driving situations. It seems like mental effort might mediate the effect of music on driving performance in situations requiring sustained attention. Other process variables, such as arousal and boredom, should also be incorporated to study designs in order to reveal more on the nature of how music affects driving.
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