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Warning: Certain Smells May Make You a Dangerous Driver (Really!)

The sense of smell has a remarkable ability to conjure up memories, change our mood -- even affect our ability to concentrate. But even more than that, smells have a unique link directly to our emotions.

Think of a "good" smell (fresh baked cookies or bread, fresh-cut flowers, etc.) and chances are that you start to feel a boost in your mood. Then think of a "bad" smell (pollution, rotten meat, etc.) and the opposite is likely to occur.

This is because, "No other sensory system has direct access to the amygdala--the emotional center of your brain," says Rachel Herz of the Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "Memories brought back by odors are experienced in a much more emotionally potent way than those from other sensory cues. In a most basic and primitive way, smells tell us what to approach and what to avoid."

Safe Driving

What makes a safe driver? According to the RAC Foundation, the smells in your car may make all the difference.

But would you believe that smells not only have the power to affect our moods, they have the power to affect our behaviors as well?

Roll Down the Windows, Something Stinks!

The British RAC Foundation, a motoring organization, conducted research into the relationship between smells and driving after an odor study by Bryan Raudenbush of the Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia was released. They found that smells have a major effect on the way we drive.

Said Sue Nicholson, head of campaigns for the RAC Foundation, "It's astounding how much the smell in a car can affect a driver's mood and actions. Smell is a very powerful sense and could result in a lack of concentration or over-reaction to minor irritations on the road--which can turn into potentially life threatening incidents."

In fact, the "right" smell in a car can help the driver:

  • Recognize dangers sooner

  • Stay focused on the road ahead

  • Forgive other people's driving errors

  • Find a bit of romance

But, get a whiff of the "wrong" smell, and the driver may be compelled to:

  • Speed

  • Doze off

  • Succumb to road rage

  • Get in a serious accident

Conrad King, the RAC Foundation's consultant psychologist, had this to say:

"More than any other sense, the sense of smell circumnavigates the logical part of the brain and acts on the limbic and emotional systems. This is why the smell of perfume can turn men into gibbering idiots, the smell of baking bread can destroy the best intentions of a dieter and the smell of baby powder can make a child-averse individual become quite broody ... When we bring cars into the equation, however, the ability of various smells to over or under stimulate us as drivers can have catastrophic results."

Would You Recognize Your Car's Smell?

Ever notice how you can no longer smell your own perfume or aftershave a few minutes after you put it on? Or how people with body odor never seem to notice they have it? These things happen because of a phenomenon called "nose fatigue." No matter how bad or good the smell, after awhile your nasal receptor cells get "numb" to the constant stimulation and stop sending messages to your brain. The result is that, at least for the time being, you can no longer smell that particular scent.

The same thing happens in cars, and drivers are often de-sensitized to the smells that are there. So, they're less likely to notice whether or not their behavior is being affected.

Worst Smells for Driving

Fast Food

Like to eat while driving? The smell of fast food wrappers could make you irritable and more susceptible to road rage.

The RAC Foundation reported that the following smells are the most dangerous ones while you're on the road:

  • Chamomile, jasmine and lavender: They make drivers too relaxed.

  • Fast food wrappers, fresh bread and pastry: These make drivers hungry and in a hurry to get something to eat. The result? Irritability and an increased risk of speeding and road rage.

  • Fresh-cut grass, pine woods and roadside flowers: These things may send drivers on a trip down memory lane ... to the extent that their daydreaming takes their mind off the road and the speed at which they're traveling. Plus, those with allergies may be thrown off by sneezing and watery eyes.

  • Leather seats and oil: Older drivers may become nostalgic, thinking back to the thrill of their first cars, and adopt more risky driving behaviors.

  • Certain perfumes and aftershaves: These may ignite sexual thoughts in both male and female drivers, making them more focused on romance than on the road.

Best Smells for Driving

Ocean Drive

Driving by the ocean and catching a whiff of salty sea air may be just the thing for safe drivers: It can help relieve stress and calm the mind.

Looking for that safe driver discount on your auto insurance policy? These scents may help:

  • Peppermint and cinnamon: They improve concentration levels and make drivers less irritable.

  • Lemon and coffee: These, too, help drivers achieve high concentration levels and clear thinking.

  • New car smell (a combination of cleaning products and organic solvents): This tends to make people more cautious about their driving and improves concentration.

  • Sea ozone: A breath of salty sea air may make drivers breathe deeply, which helps relieve stress, relax the muscles and calm the mind.

The worst of all? It may be having no scent at all. Studies of astronauts have found that when there's a lack of any odor it can lead to irritability and olfactory hallucinations.

Some day, your car may be capable of detecting your mood and automatically adjusting the smell in your car to help calm or invigorate you, according to the RAC Foundation's Motoring Toward 2050 Report. The system may also automatically adjust seat position, temperature and lighting based on your mood.

But, you don't have to wait that long to reap the benefits of this study. As Nicholson said, "Before 2050 ... motorists can help do this for themselves. A small cinnamon or mint scented room freshener sachet placed in a car could help to keep drivers alert, refreshed and focused."

Of course, if you opt for this choice, be sure to find one scented with natural oils and not their synthetic counterparts.

Recommended Reading

The Major Health Benefits of Going Barefoot (Really!)

The Toxic Chemicals Most Linked to Depression

The RAC Foundation June 3, 2005

MSNBC: Bad Odors May Cause Bad Driving June 2, 2005

Virgin Trains magazine: The Nose Has It

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