Driving Is Hazardous to Your Health

Road Worriers

4 min read

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.

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.

"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.

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.

OK, your commute tonight is an episode of road rage waiting to happen. What can you do? James recommends a three-step way to change your driving mentality.

  1. Be aware -- work on changing one aspect of your driving at a time. One day, use proper signaling; the next, let people in front of you.
  2. Witness your behavior. If you get angry, see why and how long you stay angry. Did you make any gestures or aggressive movements?
  3. Modify your actions. Arrange some sentences in advance that you can tell yourself. Say "It's not their fault, another driver was crowding them." "Maybe they didn't see me." "They may be on the way to the hospital."

His wife, he says, will sometimes say to him, "Fix your face." He will look in the mirror and see that he is scowling. "I look all mean," he admits.

Sarkar also recommends putting pictures of your spouse and family on the dashboard or playing soothing music.

With fewer and fewer high schools offering drivers' education, are people worse drivers than, say, 20 years ago? James says people in general have always been pretty poor drivers, but the congestion of today's roadways (along with all those distractions) has led to more interactions.

Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs has always been a misguided practice, accounting for a majority of fatalities. Sarkar also says driving while sleep deprived can be dangerous. "Your body needs a nap and will take it whether you are driving or not," she says. She recommends pulling over for 10 minutes and sleeping.

Glare can also cause accidents. Poor manners in adjusting your brights or even the despicable habit of turning them on in retaliation can kill people, you included.

What about trucks and truck drivers? According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, car drivers cause most truck-car accidents. "Trucks take longer to stop or turn. You must keep a wider separation." Sarkar says.

Realize the importance of trucks on the road, James says. "Trucks bring food. Trucks bring conveniences to us. We need to think about that and be grateful."

Of course, the whole time you are playing bumper cars with semis and irate motorists, you are also breathing poisonous mixtures of lead and ozone. "People think they are protected in an SUV," chuckles Sarkar, "and they are exposing themselves and everyone else to more pollution."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average adult breathes 3,400 gallons of air a day. If you commute two hours a day, you're inhaling hundreds of gallons of pollution-choked air, which worsens asthma, emphysema, and other lung problems.

So is there any good news about good old drive time? Maybe a glimmer. Andrew Baum, PhD, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, has done studies showing that sitting in traffic or commuting in general can raise blood pressure and irritability -- but they return to normal levels after you get out of the car.