Leigh Horan

Which Is Best To Listen To In The Car: Phone, Music, Podcast or Radio?

About Leigh Horan

Leigh Horan

Leigh is a writer, a frequent occupier of the passenger seat on voyages through the Welsh hills and an ogler of cars that are far too big - and far too expensive - for her.

More posts by Leigh Horan

Whether you’re firmly tied down to the daily commute, are only in the car for short bursts, or regularly go for long drives at the weekend, chances are you enjoy listening to some form of entertainment on the way. This entertainment can take the form of music, radio or podcasts, or you may even use your travel time to catch up over the phone – by using hands free, of course. But which one of these distractions diverts most of your attention away from the real task at hand; driving? We’ve taken a look at which is the best to listen to in the car to make sure you stay firmly on the road.

Why avoiding distractions is important

In 2007 using a mobile phone whilst driving became a punishable offence and studies show that drivers using both hands-free and handheld mobile phones are much slower at recognising and reacting to hazards. The same can be said of listening to loud music, and of listening to podcasts or tuning in to your favourite radio show. With something requiring as much attention as driving, any distraction can be a dangerous one, with in-vehicle distractions being a major contributor to accidents on the roads in the UK.

However, driving for a long time can be mind-numbingly boring, and such boredom can often contribute to you mentally ‘switching off’, which is never a good thing when driving. Keeping you alert when driving for long stretches can be as simple as putting on some good music, but it all depends on how distracting the thing you’re listening to is.

Read more: How To Make Your Driving Commute More Productive


Podcasts definitely involve a lot of concentration, but fortunately, as they’re pre-recorded and not live, they involve little to no intervention from the listener. The most they ask for in terms of concentration is for you to listen and pay attention to the content. Fortunately, how intently you listen in to the podcast is more up to you than it is to the podcast.

Image of man trying to listen to podcast

However, if you set up the playing of the podcast whilst driving then therein lies the problem. This momentary lapse in concentration could be all that is needed for an accident to happen, which is why we advise setting up podcasts to play before you start driving, not during your journey. Also, the fact that the podcast is played via your mobile phone, which is apt to buzz with a call or text at any moment, is an evident drawback. As compared to the other devices on this list, ‘podcasts are a less likely culprit for a driver being involved in a collision than compact discs, radio interfaces or managing music on one’s phone.’ The key thing to keep in mind with podcasts is that, though listening to podcasts whilst driving may make it seem like you can multitask well, this does not encourage you trying to multitask in other ways whilst driving.


There’s a reason why your driving instructor didn’t let you learn to drive with the music on. Listening to music can affect your reaction time, with loud music being the worst way to listen to music whilst driving. In a study done by Susan Strick, the participants had the slowest reaction times when the music reached 95 decibels, which was the loudest volume in the test. Their reaction times were slowed by 0.12 seconds, which, though it does not sound significant, makes a significant difference when it comes to a near miss and a fatal crash.

Image of friends in car

Recent studies have also shown the relationship between upbeat music and driver error or aggressive driving. One study in particular focused on young novice drivers, allowing them to pick their preferred type of upbeat music. Though the driver generally felt more enjoyment from the drive, the amount of driver deficiencies and near accidents increased drastically. However, when the same drivers listened to music designed to help generate moderate levels of complexity, rather than the difficult levels presented by the upbeat music, the driver behaviour and safety was improved. So, if you’re planning on listening to music on your drive keep the music relaxing and not too loud!

Related: Why Can’t People Park With Loud Music On?


According to a study carried out by PhD student Gillian Murphy of University College Cork and Dr Ciara Greene of University College Dublin, radios present such an enormous distraction to drivers that three quarters of the drivers assessed in the study failed to notice hazards when distracted. Gillian Murphy’s study focused on Perceptual Load Theory which is the theory that we have a finite amount of attention at any one time, meaning that we can only focus on so much.

Image of car radio

In the study participants were asked to listen out for specific things on the radio whilst driving. Of those that were given the simpler task, 71 per cent noticed the unexpected roadside animal which featured in the route simulator. Of those given the task of having to listen for traffic problems on a specific road, only 23 per cent noticed the animal. What this shows is that even though using the radio to listen out for road information may be useful, doing so limits the amount of attention we can give to our driving. Try to check the status of the roads before you step out, and not during your journey.


The worst culprit on this list, hand held phones caused so many accidents in the past that it is now an offence to use one whilst driving. Even if you use the speaker phone function throughout your call, if you need to touch your phone to begin calling someone the call requires too much concentration. Plainly put, all phone calls distract attention from the road. Think! states that studies show the use of hands-free or handheld mobile phones whilst driving makes drivers slower to recognise and react to hazards.

Image of phone in car

If you plan to use your phone to play music or a podcast then make sure you have set all of this up before you begin driving. You should also switch your phone to air plane mode to prevent distractions from texts and phone-calls during your drive. Though many people use their drive time as an opportunity to call people, it is not recommended that you do this. Keep your mind firmly on the road.

What form of entertainment do you use whilst driving? Let us know in the comments.