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
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
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
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
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