April 16, 2004
So it's true: driving while listening to loud music with an up-tempo beat can cause accidents. A BBC report on Wednesday said that a Canadian study had found that people took up to 20 per cent longer to perform physical and mental tasks when loud music was being played than when the environment was quiet. Translated into a motoring situation, this would mean that when a throbbing dub number, for instance, was blaring in the background, a driver's reaction time would be considerably impaired. This in turn would raise the odds of an accident occurring in circumstances where a quick response was required in order to avoid a crash.
According to the BBC, earlier research undertaken by the British motoring organization, the RAC Foundation, had found that drivers were twice as likely to go through a red light when listening to music than if they were not. For its part, the Canadian study concluded that the higher the decibel levels, the greater the reduction in reaction times. There was, however, a qualification to this. What matters most, apparently, is the quality of the beat: if the tune was "relaxed," said the researchers, it would have far less of an impact than if the music had a "pounding" beat. Conrad King, a consultant psychologist to the RAC was quoted as saying, "It is important that drivers choose their music carefully when driving, as up-tempo music has been shown to cause drivers to have double the amount of accidents as those listening to slower music."
What was not borne out by the research was the popular feeling that the category of music made a difference; apparently it doesn't. The RAC psychologist said: "It doesn't matter if you listen to opera, classical or the latest rave music. It's the speed of the beat that counts." He explained that if music was above 60 beats per minute, listeners experienced a faster heart rate and increased blood pressure.
Well all of this is very relevant in our situation, where mini-bus drivers and sometimes private-car owners, fly along the nation's roads blaring out the latest dancehall, chutney or rap numbers at decibel levels which assault the hearing of passers-by on the streets, let alone the occupants of the vehicles concerned. (Actually, the CNN reported the RAC as listing Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' as the number one musical item not to play in your car; Verdi's 'Dies Irae' from the Requiem, also got a no-no. Neither of these, however, are likely to feature prominently on the play-list of the average mini-bus driver.)
These columns have pointed out before the health hazard that the noise nuisance on the mini-buses in particular represents, although the Minister of Health, Dr Ramsammy, has shown no inclination in the past to inaugurate a campaign to save the auditory senses of the commuting public. However, perhaps he might be motivated now on different grounds.
Last Wednesday, the Minister informed the nation that Guyana ranked fifth among countries in the Americas in relation to traffic-accident fatality rates, noting that we had the unique distinction of having not just a higher rate of accidents than the world at large, but also than developing countries as a whole. All in all, he said, accidents cost this nation at least $1B a year. As a consequence, it had been decided to establish a broad-based national committee which would be convened by the Ministries of Health and Home Affairs in conjunction with the Pan American Health Organization, to create a sustained and aggressive road safety programme. Dr Ramsammy also announced that his ministry would appoint a person within its Health Promotion Unit to have permanent and exclusive responsibility for promoting road safety.
Committees are not known for their speed of action, of course, but nevertheless it is good news that the problem of our accident rate is to be given serious attention. And now we have evidence that something simple, straightforward and immediate can be done, which should have an impact on that accident rate. Since mini-buses are involved in a high proportion of crashes on our roads, and since they are responsible for transporting the public, the new committee in the first instance should request a change in the law banning boom boxes on all forms of public transportation, and then should move to a recommendation prohibiting the playing of music altogether on buses. Outlawing amplification systems will generally take care of the problem of volume, but it is virtually impossible to control the tempo of the music being played if a driver still has a tape-deck, or a radio tuned to 98HotFM on board. The only practical solution, therefore, is to ban music altogether on the mini-buses. In most orderly jurisdictions, it is not permissible to play music on public transportation. It is about time that this jurisdiction too became more orderly.