Commuters stuck in traffic are experiencing a psychic toll that experts are trying to explain, with psychologists reporting a growing number of complaints about traffic anxiety and anger.
“If you’re stuck in traffic, there’s a feeling of being out of control,” explains Dr Laura Pinegar, a Long Beach-based psychologist who treats depression and panic disorders. “You can be at a dead standstill on the freeway, but amped up from the day, thinking, ‘I gotta get home, I gotta get the kids. What if I don’t get to daycare before it closes?’”
University of California Irvine psychologists Raymond Novaco and Daniel Stokols conducted studies on commuter stress and found that although they hypothesized that long commutes would be more stressful for hard-charging, Type A personalities than for mellow Type Bs, it turned out that the opposite was true. The reasons they found include: The hard-chargers exercised more control over their lives, they had picked homes they liked and jobs that absorbed them, and so in traffic, they thought about work. The mellow drivers, on the other hand, thought about being trapped in traffic.
According to one study, women with long-distance commutes who drive alone are in the demographic group that suffers the greatest commuting stress. Pinegar says she has had some success in encouraging drivers to think of their commute as a buffer zone between work and home.
For Leon James – a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii – his research began 25 years ago when his wife told him his driving scared her. She pointed out that he switched lanes before he looked, took curves too fast and raged against other drivers.
The rebuke got him thinking – and led to his role in the academic field of the psychology of driving. He began by asking his students to carry voice recorders to monitor their responses on the road and learned that they were no strangers to rage – particularly when cut off, tailgated or stuck behind slow cars in the fast lane.
James says studies have found little correlation between motorists’ personalities inside and outside of the car. Road rage can overtake those who are models of agreeability at home or at the office. He has concluded that road rage is not an anger-management problem, but one of socialization – people absorb their driving behavior in the back seat at an early age, watching grown-ups curse, pound the steering wheel and cut each other off.
Even as kids learn self-control on the playground, says James, they are taught the opposite on the road. “What we need is traffic emotions education starting in kindergarten,” he said. “You can't just act the way you want.”
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