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January 29, 2019

Yet another reason to hate traffic: It's a hazard to public health

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 13, 2021.

    While most people accept rush hour traffic as an inevitable annoyance, research suggests it can take a "physical and psychological toll" on commuters, Austin Frakt writes for the New York Times' "The Upshot."

    Infographic: Here are 4 ways to be a less-stressed leader

    "Nobody likes sitting in traffic," Frakt, director of the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, writes, but we do it all the time. On average, commuters in America spend 42 hours per year in rush hour traffic, and that number doubles in high-traffic cites, such as Los Angeles, according to an analysis by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

    As a result, Frakt, who also is an associate professor with Boston University's School of Public Health and an adjunct associate professor with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, writes that traffic has become one of life's "major stressors," Frakt writes, and there is research to back that up. For instance, one study revealed that "commuting is one of the least pleasant things we do," according to Frakt.

    It's a public health issue

    But commuting is "not just an annoying time waster," Frakt writes. There's also "a case that it's a public health issue," he notes.  

    For instance, heavy traffic can negatively impact a person's physical health. Exhaust from idle vehicles contributes to air pollution, which can cause respiratory problems, "especially in children," Frakt writes.

    On top of that, the "helplessness we experience in traffic," along with its "unpredictability," can affect commuters' "psychological well-being" by causing significant stress, Frakt writes.  

    And, when people are stressed out, they often "take out their frustration on others," he adds—or express "road rage."

    Road rage is a common manifestation of commuter stress, but in some instances the "aggressive behavior can carry over beyond a commute," according to Frakt. For instance, one analysis of traffic in Los Angeles revealed an association between "extreme traffic" and domestic violence. According to the study, "extreme" evening traffic on two major Los Angeles highways was correlated with a 9% increase in domestic violence at night, Frakt writes.  

    Louis-Philippe Beland, an author of the analysis and an economist at Louisiana State University, said, "Life stressors act as emotional cues." He explained, "What our work shows is that in extreme cases some people's responses to those cues can be quite large, leading to violence."

    Here's what we can do about it

    According to Frakt, policymakers—and commuters themselves—are not "powerless before the problems that stressful commutes can cause," adding that there are steps they can take to minimize traffic and its psychological impact.

    Frakt advises commuters explore alternate forms of transportation, such as biking or walking, which "tend to have a double advantage" for the commuter. "Not only do they avoid the harmful consequences of traffic, but they can also improve their health through exercise."

    At the policy level, Frakt writes that some cities are employing "economic-based practices," such as "congestion pricing," which involves charging solo drives more to use certain highway lanes during extreme traffic. The pricing hikes "encourag[e] drivers to move their commutes to less congested times or routes," which can reduce the amount of traffic on major highways, Frakt writes. One study found that adding congestion pricing to Seattle's SR-520 bridge made bridge commuters "less stressed and more satisfied with their commutes."

    In other states, officials are "replacing tollbooths with electronic and cashless tolling systems like E-ZPass" to reduce congestion, Frakt writes. And some "West Coast cities are making sweeping expansions of their public transit systems," while other "cities are adding bike lanes."

    But Frakt said an even more high tech solution might bring "good news in coming decades for those who loathe gridlock": self-driving cars.

    "If you're crawling along in traffic and are late to an appointment, but are allowed to take a nap, play video games, watch your favorite TV show or sip on a cocktail, will that reduce your stress? We don't know for sure, but we look forward to the studies on that" (Frakt, "The Upshot," New York Times, 1/21).

    Next, here are 4 ways to be a less-stressed leader

    Stress is endemic in today’s health care workforce, but the good news is that leaders have much more control over their stress levels at work than they might think. The most effective leaders take steps to proactively keep their own stress in check—while modeling healthy habits for their teams.

    Use this infographic to review effective stress management strategies that can help you become a less-stressed leader.

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