Stuck and Stressed: The Health Costs of Traffic

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2019, The New York Times Company). 

Sometimes the seemingly small things in life can be major stressors.

Nobody likes sitting in traffic, for example. According to one study, commuting is one of the least pleasant things we do. But it’s not just an annoying time waster — there’s a case that it’s a public health issue.

According to analysis by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the average American commuter spends 42 hours per year stuck in rush-hour traffic. In the Los Angeles area, the figure is nearly twice that, equivalent to more than three days. A 2015 Los Angeles Times poll found that among residents of that city, traffic concerns exceed those pertaining to personal safety, finances or housing costs.

The total cost of traffic associated with lost time and wasted fuel exceeds $100 billion per year. As time slips away, idling vehicles add pollution, which has environmental and health consequences, including contributions to climate change. Long-term exposure to vehicle exhaust is associated with respiratory problems, especially in children.

Another toll is to psychological well-being, stemming from the sense of helplessness we experience in traffic, and its unpredictability. This, too, can be quantified. One study found that to save a minute of time spent in traffic, people would trade away five minutes of any other leisure activity. Another study found that we deal better with the commuting delays that we can anticipate.

Stressed-out people can take out their frustration on others. We’ve probably all experienced or seen road rage, but aggressive behavior can carry over beyond a commute.

recent analysis of Los Angeles traffic, published in the Journal of Public Economics, documented a link between congestion and domestic violence. From 2011 to 2015, the study found, extreme evening traffic on two major highways — I-5 and I-10 — increased the incidence of nighttime domestic violence by about 9 percent.

What the researchers, Louis-Philippe Beland, an economist at Louisiana State University, and Daniel Brent, an economist at Penn State, mean by “extreme traffic” in their study is best explained with an example: The average evening commute along I-10 for residents of Santa Monica in their study was 45 minutes. Extreme traffic would increase this to 87 minutes.

“Life stressors act as emotional cues,” Mr. Beland said. “What our work shows is that in extreme cases some people’s responses to those cues can be quite large, leading to violence.”

Teaching children how to manage stress and traumatic events from a young age can be important. “Throughout life, mindfulness, healthy eating, sleeping and exercise, and hobbies that blow of steam all help,” said Rebecca Mooney, director of Melrose Alliance Against Violence, which raises awareness about domestic violence and related issues in and around Melrose, Mass.


Hidden information below


Email Address*