Wearing headphones while driving is a bad idea, and now we know how bad

Ford undertook a study to see how much wearing headphones messes with your spatial recognition.

Kyle Hyatt Former news and features editor
Kyle Hyatt (he/him/his) hails originally from the Pacific Northwest, but has long called Los Angeles home. He's had a lifelong obsession with cars and motorcycles (both old and new).
Kyle Hyatt
2 min read

Don't do this.

mixetto via Getty Images

There are a lot of things that you shouldn't be doing while driving. These include texting, shaving, brushing your teeth, drinking a beer and wearing headphones. If you agree that all those things are no bueno behind the wheel, congratulations. If you got to the last one and were confused, then, listen, we have to talk.

Seriously, driving with headphones on or earbuds in is illegal in many places, but even in the areas in which it's not illegal, it's a bad idea because it destroys your sense of spatial awareness. decided that it was curious about how bad an idea it is, so it put together a study in Europe to quantify that, and announced the results of that study on Wednesday.

The study uses an app that plays "8D" spatial audio, which seeks to create realism through precisely controlled panning and equalization. This 8D audio is used in conjunction with a virtual-reality street to create sound cues that study participants were then asked to identify -- for example, they were asked if they could hear an ambulance approaching from behind. 

The cues were played for people without headphones and for people with headphones on playing music. It was found that the people listening to music via headphones were on average 4.2 seconds slower to identify cues than those without headphones. It may not seem like it, but 4.2 seconds is practically an eternity when you're talking about the difference between crashing into someone on a bicycle and avoiding them.

Of the 2,000 participants in the study, 44% said they wouldn't wear headphones or earbuds anymore while operating a vehicle of some kind. That's huge. If you think this sounds like a bunch of nonsense, the good news is that Ford is making the app available to everyone so you can try it out for yourself, and hopefully it will change your mind.