Skip to main content

Why 'Driving Home for Christmas' may not be the best song to listen to when actually driving home for Christmas


New research shows why, from a driver safety perspective, ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ may not be the perfect song to listen to while actually driving home for Christmas.

Brunel University London, Coventry University and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), working with Direct Line Motor Insurance can reveal the festive songs that can have the best and worst effects on a motorist’s mental state when driving home for Christmas – and the ones that are better suited to rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

With nearly half (45 per cent) of Brits planning to drive home for Christmas this year, around 23.9 million people say they’ll be behind the wheel when travelling to visit friends or family over the festive period. However, the research shows that Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’, at 90 bpm, may be too slow to suitably stimulate motorists on monotonous motorway trips. This will not be music to the ears of millions of motorists, as it has been voted the third most popular Christmas song with 28 per cent of Britons citing it as one of their favourites – just behind The Pogues’ drunken ballad ‘Fairytale of New York’ (34 per cent) and Maria Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ (28 per cent).

Brunel’s research reveals that in stressful driving environments, such as urban roads that demand a higher amount of perceptual and processing work from the brain, it is best to listen to slower music. This is because the mental load imposed by the driving environment is quite high and so fast, stimulative music can lead to overload. Therefore, Christmas classics such as ‘Stop The Cavalry’ by Jona Lewie, ‘Santa Baby’ by Eartha Kitt or ‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby – all of which have a slower tempo, would be ideal for city driving.

On longer highway drives, there are fewer external factors that elevate the mental load of driving, which can lead to mild mental fatigue and boredom. Accordingly, songs in a moderate-to-fast tempo range (of between 100 bpm and 130 bpm) are optimal. ‘Do They Know It's Christmas?’ By Band Aid, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ by Bobby Helms and ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ by Slade are all ideal tunes to add to a playlist. However, it’s ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! that is rated as the best song for long drives thanks to its moderate tempo of 108 bpm, catchy lyrics and ‘happy’ harmonic structure.

“Our research suggests that mild mental stimulation through music can be beneficial on long motorway drives with several popular Christmas songs providing just that," said Brunel's Professor Costas Karageorghis. 

“What drivers should look out for when populating their festive road-trip playlists are positive lyrics, a tempo range of 100–130 bpm, low-to-moderate levels of syncopation and engaging instrumentation. It is also advisable not to play the music too loudly, so that you are still able to hold a conversation with passengers in the vehicle and hear the music as well as the surrounding traffic. We’d advise keeping the fast/loud music for the family get-togethers, rather than using it for driving at this festive time of year.”

Christmas classics that Direct Line identified as having a potentially negative impact on long drives are ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ by Frank Sinatra, which at 64 bpm and 68 bpm respectively may have a ‘snooze factor’ about them, with drivers at risk of soporific effects on their driving. ‘Sleigh Ride’ by The Ronettes, poses an opposing problem, as at 182 bpm it has a tempo that may induce speeding – as well as five key changes, which give a feeling of more and more energy to the driver.

These findings are important, as further researchfrom Direct Line found that 46 per cent of those driving to visit friends or family over Christmas – some 11.1 million people – say that they always listen to Christmas music, with 76 per cent of this group stating that they always sing along with festive cheer.

Brits estimate that they’re each going to spend just short of three hours (2 hours, 54 minutes) driving this Christmas. This will result in a grand total of 68.5 million hours spent travelling to see loved ones over the festive season.

Lorraine Price, Head of Motor at Direct Line, said: “Music often plays a central role in driving, especially over the festive season when travelling to see friends and family. It’s great to see that so many of the UK’s favourite Christmas songs are perfect to listen to on long journeys this December, though unfortunately, it looks as though Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ may just be best to play once you reach your destination. We wish everyone safe travels and hope this helps compiling that perfect Christmas driving playlist.”