It isn?t only the speed at which people drive that causes car crashes, it?s also the speed of the music they?re listening to. Warren Brodsky of Ben-Gurion University in Israel says drivers who listen to fast music in their cars may have more than twice as many accidents as people who listen to slower tracks.

Previous studies have shown a link between loud music and dangerous driving, but Brodsky wondered if tempo had any effect on driver behavior. To find out, he put a group of 28 students on a driving simulator. Each student drove round the virtual streets of Chicago while listening to different pieces of music, or none at all. The students had an average of seven years? driving experience.

Brodsky chose music in a variety of styles, ranging from laid-back George Benson ballads to the ultra-fast rock numbers. The tempo ranged from a slow 60 beats per minute to a fast 120 beats per minute or more. All the music was played loudly to maximize its effect.

As the tempo increased, Brodsky found that drivers took more risks, such as jumping red lights, and had more accidents. When listening to up-tempo pieces, they were twice as likely to jump a red light as those who were not listening to music. And drivers had more than twice as many accidents when they were listening to fast tempos as when they listened to slow or medium-paced music. Brodsky realizes that behavior on a simulator may not translate into the same behavior on the road, ?But I think it?s got to be taken seriously,? he says.

He also monitored the drivers? heart rates and found that it fluctuated less when they were listening to music of any kind compared with no music at all. This lack of variation showed that music was distracting the drivers and making them less alert.

Brodsky advises drivers to be aware of the tempo effect and choose slower pieces of music, or turn down the volume so they are less distracted. And when he?s driving, he says, ?I?m now more careful in my choice of music.?

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A major new study by Transport Research Laboratory researchers in Britain reveals that a single glass of wine will impair your driving more than smoking a joint. And under certain test conditions, the complex way alcohol and marijuana combine to affect driving behavior shows that someone who has had both may drive less recklessly than a person who is simply drunk.

There is no accurate test that can reveal whether a driver has smoked marijuana before driving, and developing one will not be easy. But even when this is solved, another question will remain?how much marijuana is safe to smoke before driving.

Advocates of zero tolerance say there should be penalties for drivers caught with any amount of recently smoked marijuana in their body. But the new research suggests that would only be acceptable if governments also adopted zero tolerance on drink driving.

The new study confirms the results of a study done more than a year ago. Researchers at the TRL, led by Barry Sexton, gave 15 volunteers doses of marijuana or alcohol, or a combination of both, before giving them an array of psychomotor tests on a sophisticated driving simulator.

The volunteers were given either enough alcohol to raise alcohol levels in their blood to about 60 per cent of Britain’s legal limit or a specially prepared marijuana joint designed to deliver the same high typically experienced by smokers. In the study, marijuana significantly affected only tracking ability. Volunteers found it more difficult to hold a constant speed and follow the middle of the road accurately while driving around a figure-of-eight loop. The TRL researchers point out that this test requires drivers to hold their concentration for a short time, an ability which is affected by marijuana.

However, volunteers drinking the equivalent of a glass of wine did worse than those who had smoked a joint. Those who were given both alcohol and marijuana performed even worse, reinforcing the idea that alcohol has a cumulative effect when taken with other drugs.

But the study also found that drivers on marijuana tended to be aware of their intoxicated state, and drove more cautiously to compensate for it. Doped-up volunteers often rated themselves as being more impaired than the policemen who were brought in to evaluate their sobriety. Surprisingly, drinking alcohol didn?t change their cautious behavior.

This cautious behavior goes along with findings by other researchers. Nicholas Ward, of the Immortal project, a European Union trial of the risk to drivers after taking various drugs and medicines, says, ?Whereas alcohol promotes risk taking like fast speeds and close following, [marijuana] promotes conservative driving, but may cause attention problems and misperceptions of time.?

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A tiny fuel cell that detects the alcoholic breath of a drunk driver, then calls the police has been developed by Ed Kolesar and a team of engineers at Texas Christian University. The researchers are talking to General Motors about putting it in their cars.

The detector is based on a fuel cell run on ethyl alcohol. A pump draws air in from the passenger cabin, a platinum catalyst converts any alcohol to acetic acid, which then produces a current proportional to the concentration of alcohol in the air. A chip analyses the data, and if the alcohol level is too high, turns on a wireless transmitter that calls the police. This signal can be received up to half a mile away.

The entire detector is small enough to be mounted on the steering wheel or the sun visor. above the driver. It needs only to be within 20 inches of the driver?s mouth to detect alcohol on his breath. This helps avoid false alarms when the car has drunk passengers or if someone is carrying an open bottle of liquor in the car.

Courts in some municipalities already require people convicted of driving while impaired to install ignition locks on their cars. The car only starts once the driver has breathed into an analyzer, says Kolesar. ?But our detector is simpler and cheaper and the driver would not have to cooperate for it to work. I think we could see the alcohol detector in cars within five years, if automakers, the police, insurance companies and others want it.?

The detector can be assembled from off-the-shelf components and costs about $100 to make. Kolesar believes mass-produced units will be cheap enough to install in every car. And it?s hard to fool??Tests have shown that colognes, perfumes and gasohol fuel fumes do not confuse the sensor?it is very specific for ethanol,? Kolesar says. However, tobacco smoke can coat the catalyst, causing it to fail.

So if you smoke AND drink, you may not get caught.

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