As It Happens

Listen to 'the most annoying sound ever' — made to warn drivers of head-on collisions

Virginia researchers have designed a grating, painful, high-pitched alarm that just might save your life one day.
A team of engineers has developed the most annoying sound the could come up with to warn drivers of head-on collisions. (Ambrozinio/Shutterstock)

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Carryl Baldwin swears she wasn't trying to get on people's nerves when she engineered the high-pitched, jarring alarm that one headline dubbed "The Most Annoying Sound Ever."

After years of research, the George Mason University psychologist and her team have come up with what they say is the most effective car alarm to warn drivers of head-on collisions.

"I didn't set out to find a noise that was very annoying, but more attention-grabbing," Baldwin told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"We were trying to find something that would grab your attention in the context of driving a vehicle to let you know that there was a potential hazard in front of you and we wanted it to be something that you would instantly recognize as being highly urgent and critical the very first time you heard it."

Current alarms not up to snuff

Baldwin says they began by having people listen to different sounds and rate them based on their perceived urgency — low being a Facebook notification and high being a warning of immediate danger.

They also tested the sounds vehicles already use to warn of impending collisions, which Baldwin said "were not necessarily perceived as being very urgent or maybe not necessarily even perceived as being any kind of a warning at all."

Over time, they started to get a sense of which sounds are most effective in getting people's attention — high-pitched, quick-paced and, above all, different. 

"We certainly don't want it to be perceived as a cell phone ring or a text message or something like that coming in, so it needs to be kind of unique," Baldwin said.

Researchers tested out different alarm sounds using a driving simulator. (Carryl Baldwin)

When they tested different sounds on people using driving simulators, one alarm reigned supreme. 

"Within just a few hundred milliseconds, it grabs their attention, so whatever they've been distracted by . . . it brings their eyes back to the forward roadway and prepares them to make it an immediate response," Baldwin said.

Coming to a car near you?

The findings are now up for review by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which could use it to develop guidelines for new vehicles.

Baldwin is also shopping her research around to different car makers.

In the driving simulator, people's reaction times varied depending on which collision alarm they heard. (Carryl Baldwin)

Still, she says companies don't need to install that exact sound in their vehicles. The team has come up with a set of parameters that should allow manufacturers some leeway in designing their own alarms. 

In their tests, sounds within those parameters frequently reduced the severity of collisions and sometimes prevented them altogether.

"So yeah, we found it to be very effective," Baldwin said.


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