Ears on the road: the relationship between listening and driving

By F. Tan

“Eyes on the road”.  You may have heard that line from your parents or your driving instructor.  That’s because the first things that come to mind when thinking about safe driving are watching the road (aside from watching your speed), checking the mirrors every so often, watching out for pedestrians and anything that pops up in front or around you.

“Ears on the road.” Have you heard that at all? Probably not. We are not primed to think about listening when we talk about driving, but we multi-task every time we step on the pedal. Not in a writing-a-text-message multi-tasking way, but listening to multiple sounds while on the road. If you jumped to a ‘no’ upon reading the title “do you multi-task while you’re on the road?”, read on to see if you truly don’t.


1. Honking

Urban areas like Shanghai have banned honking in denser areas as an effort to reduce noise pollution. While many use the honk as a release of their road-rage, some places are still using the honk as a replacement for shoulder checks. A driver once told me “in India you need three things to drive: Good honks, good breaks, and good luck”. He clearly forgot about good hearing!


2. Asking for and Receiving Directions

Pulling aside to ask for directions happens once in a blue moon, since we are equipped with technology and navigation apps. We’re talking about hearing the GPS directions – that typically favored female British voice that says “in two-hundred meters, turn right. Turn Right!”


3. Outside Noise

Ambulance sirens part the roads like the red sea. Alright, this one is about saving lives, but it’s also about listening to the outside environment.


4. Talking

You’re listening to the passenger, deep in conversation, and hopefully not arguing. Chances are there’s some music playing in the background. The more interesting the conversation, the harder it is to divide your attention.


5. Stereo System

Ever been on a long road trip? Music is a friend especially when you are the only (awake) one. It keeps highway hypnosis on the low. What about your daily commute to work? You’re stuck in a jam, and those hilarious radio talk shows can help entertain you, unless you’ve made yourself an on-the-road playlist.


6. Being on the Phone

Nowadays, most cars have a built-in Bluetooth speaker for you take calls. When you’re stuck on the road and late for an early morning meeting.  When you’re on the way to a grocery store, but have forgotten that one thing your partner asked you to buy. When you’re approaching your friend’s apartment parking which they have to buzz open. There’s endless reasons to be on the phone while driving, many of which are not excusable.


We’re constantly swarmed with all kinds sensory stimulation. Driving is one of the more common situations that point out how much noise we’re exposed to, even in our own enclosed spaces.

Next time you’re on the road, in a small cafe, or a space small enough to feel enclosed, notice all the sounds you’re really exposing yourself to.