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When Home Seems To Be on the Road

The New Kitchen Table

Cars are becoming more like a destination point-- a second home -- than a vehicle to ferry people from point A to point B. Video by Video: Annie Gowen/The Washington Post, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com

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Drivers in the Washington area spend more time in their cars than other drivers across the country -- an estimated 100 minutes a day, compared with an hour nationally, according to transportation planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

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The average resident of the region spends 60 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, a number that has almost doubled since 1988, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

Time spent in a car is expected to increase as traffic congestion worsens, even if the number of miles traveled doesn't, said Ronald F. Kirby, director of the Council of Governments' department of transportation planning. Congestion may worsen as drivers move more slowly because they are using cellphones and fancy new Global Positioning Systems -- the very conveniences designed to make long commutes more palatable, safety experts say.

A few weeks ago, Madeleine Mueller, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom, decided she would try an experiment. She began resetting the odometer to zero every time she jumped in her Suburban to shuttle her five kids to Catholic school and activities, just to see how many miles she drove on an ordinary day. She knew it was a lot. She discovered it was 50 to 80.

Turns out she drives more than her husband, who commutes 24 miles from Centreville to his job as a development director for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.

"I felt like I was driving huge amounts of time, and I just wanted to quantify it," she said. "The days I'm in the car more I can actually feel it in my body. I could feel it if I had a 50-mile day versus an 80-mile day. . . . I'm more tired out, a more kind of stressed feeling. Like a mental tiredness."

She could join a car pool but chooses not to. Sometimes the car is the only place she can get the full attention of the kids, who range in age from 4 to 16. In the Suburban, they're a captive audience.

Last week, her 14-year-old daughter was clamoring to change the radio station to Hot 99.5, but Mueller wanted them to listen to a news analysis of the upcoming presidential primary. They ended up having a lively discussion of each candidate's views.

"It's one of those things where if I can catch them in the car, we can have those conversations more than I would have with them at home," Mueller said. "So the car time can be beneficial, if you use it the right way."

Ronnie Lesley, a 64-year-old retiree from the Fairfax County section of Alexandria, also thinks the best time to have a family discussion is when his family -- his wife, two grown daughters, a son-in-law and grandchild -- is in the car. Recently, they had a searching debate about whether the elder Lesleys should move to Florida to care for an aging relative. The consensus was ultimately no.

"That's the beauty of the van; it captures everybody in one spot," Lesley said.

You'd Be Home by Now

Jane Lemmerman, a 40-year-old Leesburg resident, says her Toyota Sienna minivan is both closet and pantry for her family of four. It's packed with snacks, sippy cups, strollers, extra clothes, even a trash can.

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