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Driving Is Hazardous to Your Health

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WebMD Feature

Traffic in cities has gotten so bad that people will do almost anything in their cars. Running red lights, reading the newspaper, eating breakfast, shaving, and talking on cell phones while driving are common and dangerous. It burns us up to see other people do them, but many of us are guilty, too.

And if that isn't bad enough, drivers in one city have reported seeing TVs, sofas, and tires in the road during their daily rush to work. A few years ago in Atlanta, a truck carrying bees tipped over, sending the bees swarming all over the highway. Another time, it was a truck full of live chickens.

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Obstacles and bad drivers are just some of the many hazards we face on the high-speed battleground called the commute. But even on a normal day, driving can have dangerous effects on your health.

Multitasking Can Kill

"The biggest new hazard we see arising is distraction," says Sheila S. Sarkar, PhD, director of the California Institute of Transportation Safety in San Diego. She cites, in particular, telephoning, disciplining children, and teen drivers interacting with their friends. Most drivers are too confident, she says, and need to understand the limits to their concentration.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh recently conducted a study that demonstrates these limits. They found that even when people perform tasks that utilize different parts of the brain, doing them at the same time sucks away brainpower.

To perform two different tasks at once, you have to switch from one set of mental processes used in the first task to another set used on the second. Scientists call this "goal switching." When you switch tasks, the rules that govern the second task have to be activated, and when your mind is occupied by the first task, switching can take almost a second -- long enough to cause a serious accident.

That one-second distraction contributes to the 42,000 people killed on the road each year and the $250 billion annual injury cost of commuting.

Age of Rage

Commuting can certainly hurt you physically, but how does it affect your mental and psychological health? Leon James, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and his team have people carry tape recorders and tape their every thought while in the car. He says people are not aware of the negative emotions that surge through them while driving. "Driving," he points out, "is an activity in which you are surrounded by hundreds of people having negative emotions, and the whole system is based on whether it's cooperative or antagonistic." James is the co-author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare.

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