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Your Car + Your Commute = A Visit to Your Doctor
Worried About the Toll Your Workday Drive Is Taking on Your Car? The Wear on Your Body Might Be Even Worse.

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007

For seven years, Gail Ennis has been spending up to three hours a day behind the wheel of her Subaru, commuting between her law office in Washington and her home on Gibson Island in Anne Arundel County. What she's gotten out of the 100-mile daily round trip is sciatica -- a shooting pain down one leg -- and a lack of time for exercise.

"It's just too much and getting worse every year," Ennis said.

Besides being a daily grind that takes time away from family, a long commute can be harmful to your health. Researchers have found that hours spent behind the wheel raise blood pressure and cause workers to get sick and stay home more often. Commuters have lower thresholds for frustration at work, suffer more headaches and chest pains, and more often display negative moods at home in the evenings.

It's not just the drivers who suffer. Carpool passengers have to deal with what they call "Mustang neck" or "Beetle neck" -- the contortions they must make to wedge themselves into the back seats of certain cars.

Such ailments have long plagued drivers in California and other parts of the country where grueling commutes have been a way of life for decades. But Washington commuters, who are increasingly making the long hauls that cause the most problems, are catching up fast, researchers said. The region's drivers have the nation's second-longest commutes, behind New York, according to Census Bureau figures, and in outer suburbs, drives are as much as an hour each way on a good day -- and there aren't many good days.

As a consequence, more drivers will probably suffer the health effects of a commuter lifestyle, researchers and doctors said. "You tell someone they need to exercise or go to physical therapy, but how can they? They leave at 5 a.m. and get home at 7 or 8 p.m. at night," said Robert G. Squillante, an orthopedic surgeon in Fredericksburg who has treated patients for back pain and other commuting-related issues.

He said constant road vibrations and sitting in the same position for a long time is bad for the neck and spine and puts special pressure on the bottom disc in the lower back, the one most likely to deteriorate over the years.

There are other long-term concerns. Raymond W. Novaco, a professor at the University of California at Irvine's Institute of Transportation Studies who has researched commuting for three decades, found a correlation between traffic congestion and negative health effects such as higher blood pressure and stress.

Novaco's research team measures the blood pressure and heart rate of commuters shortly after they arrive at work and again two hours later. Commuters also fill out detailed questionnaires on their home and work lives. "The longer the commute, the more illness" and more illness-related work absences occur, he said.

"If you're driving an hour-and-a-half each way twice a day for 30 years, the consequences don't catch up with you at 32, they catch up in your 50s ," said Jerry L. Deffenbacher, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University, who uses a computerized driving simulator to test the connection between traffic congestion and anger. "Like smoking, it wouldn't be immediately obvious."

Drivers with multiple route changes are at greater risk, Novaco found after plotting out the commutes of his study subjects. "It's a physical strain as well as psychological one," he said. "It's frustrative and activates negative emotional states, and that generally has an effect on physical well-being."

Long solo commutes are especially tough on women, Novaco said his research found. Women, he said, generally "had more responsibility for getting family up and running and were significantly more likely to report being rushed to get to work."

Spending hours sitting in your car can also cause back and other muscle problems and takes time away from more active, healthier pursuits such as walking or going to the gym.

The ill effects of commuting are increasingly showing up in local doctors' offices. Squillante, the Fredericksburg orthopedic surgeon, said he has had surgery patients say that the best thing about a back operation was the forced hiatus from their daily commute during recovery.

Patients are desperate to find solutions and swear by certain types of car-seat pillows or jury-rigged lumbar supports, Squillante said. "There are people who feel they've discovered the miracle pillow," he said, though he said he doesn't know of any sure-fire solution.

Robert Cervero, chairman of the department of city and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied the relationship between the design of communities and physical activity. He said rising rates of obesity and some types of diabetes contribute to the problems facing commuters. But so, too, do the lifestyle choices -- and land-use decisions -- that result in long commutes.

Caryn Hutson works for a property firm in the District but lives in her "dream home" in Haymarket, some 40 miles away. She leaves the house at 5:30 in the morning and gets back at 6:30 p.m. -- if traffic on Interstate 66 cooperates.

"It's just tiring," Hutson said of her daily drill. Someone who was never much for caffeine, she now bolsters herself with coffee in the morning and soda for the evening rush. But by midweek, "I'm running on fumes. That's the biggest toll. It's not enough sleep."

One of the reasons her family moved to Haymarket was for their children. But the tough commute also takes away family time. And year after year, as traffic gets worse and worse, the time in the car gets longer and longer.

"It's tough as a parent," she said. "You want to give your children everything they want, but there are limitations to that because of the time it takes."

Hutson used to have a 10-minute commute when she lived and worked in Tysons Corner. She recalls that time as "living in la-la land."

"I was able to find time and energy to work out regularly," she said. "And I don't now. I would have to wake up at 3 a.m. to get a workout."

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