9 Ways to Make Your Morning Commute Less Stressful
Try these ingenious strategies and keep your calm behind the wheel.
Grab a Jar of Vicks VapoRub
The neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, Alan R. Hirsch, MD, FACP, says inhaling certain scents like jasmine have been found to improve motor reaction time—helping you to hit the brakes faster. A mixture of eucalyptus, camphor and menthol (found in Vicks VapoRub) has been shown to enhance empathy—helpful when you're caught behind a Sunday driver on a manic Monday. And if it feels like the walls of your compact car are caving in, green apple and cucumber (which studies have found reduce anxiety and claustrophobia) could help you maintain your cool. However, spritzing a fragrance all over your car's interior can discolor the upholstery, says Jessica Hanson, director of fragrances at Sephora. Instead, spray a scent on a piece of felt, keep it in your glove compartment and pull it out before you hit the road.
Don't Fall for the Faster-Moving Lane
In a recent Los Angeles experiment, where one car changed as many lanes as it could to get an advantage, and another car drove the same stretch staying in one lane, researchers found that after about 10 miles the cars were only separated by about 15 seconds, says Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). And a survey conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute reported that over 50 percent of participants cited merging to be the most stressful activity faced during driving. The solution: Pick one lane—preferably the right one, where you'll find the majority of the country's exits—and stay there, says Robert McClanahan, director of transportation and safety education at Central Tech in Drumright, Oklahoma.
Honking horn
Lay Off the Horn for Your Health
Nobody likes a honker, and making a lot of noise is no more effective than repeatedly pressing an elevator button—nobody is magically going to jump out of your way, says Vanderbilt. European studies have linked traffic noise to raised blood pressure and heart attacks, among other cardiovascular diseases. In other words, save the horn for emergency situations only, and you'll be less likely to end up in the ER yourself.
Girl laughing
Crack Yourself Up
Peter McGraw, associate professor of marketing and psychology at University of Colorado, Boulder, and director of the Humor Research Lab, says a study has shown that subjects exposed to humorous stimuli had an elevated threshold for physical discomfort. We're going to take a giant scientific leap and say that listening to the recently released audiobook Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), read by the author and star of The Office, Mindy Kaling, might help put you in a better mood.
Tortoise and hare race
Believe It: Slower Can Be Faster
Vanderbilt says a recent experiment in the Colorado mountains found that the majority of jams and crashes were the result of people driving into slower traffic too fast. When police paced drivers at 55 miles per hour (instead of the usual 70 or 75) they discovered everyone moved faster. Luxury car companies have developed systems that regulate speed and interval to the car ahead, and some, like Mercedes, are working on a technology that would allow vehicles to communicate with one another about upcoming traffic and road conditions. These systems will likely trickle down to the nonluxury sector (just like power locks, power windows and heated seats did). In the meantime, try to use your cruise control when possible and don't tailgate, which researchers have found not only increases your risk of hitting the vehicle you are following but also being struck by the car behind you, says Vanderbilt.
Frustrated woman leaning out of car window
Keep the Peace
You might not think you have any control over other people on the road (like the driver giving you the stink eye in the next car over), but acknowledging their behavior opens the floodgates to more aggression, says McClanahan. Keep your eyes moving in any direction but that of the maniac pulled up next to you. Instead, check your rearview or side mirrors and watch the car ahead.
Woman wearing seat belt
Abide by the Buddy System
Vanderbilt points out that you are less likely to crash when you have a passenger in the car (with the exception of teenage drivers). Try the free Avego iPhone app that offers empty seats in your car to potential passengers along your route in real time and provides electronic micropayments so that you can easily split up the cost of the ride.
Woman driving and talking on cell phone
Give Your Cell Phone the Silent Treatment
Unless you're a brain surgeon, Vanderbilt says driving is likely the most complex thing you do every day. Researchers estimate that about 1,500 to 2,500 skills and activities are undertaken while at the wheel, he adds. In his book, Vanderbilt notes that the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that almost 80 percent of crashes involve drivers who were not paying attention for three seconds or less before the event. Other research has found that you are just as impaired using a cell phone (either hand-held or hands-free) as you are when you drive intoxicated. Bottom line: Switch your phone off.
Aerial view of highway traffic
Know Before You Go
Back roads may move slower and seem less stressful, but Vanderbilt says highways are almost always the better (and safer) option. "There are fewer points of conflict—you don't have to worry about catching the light or keeping an eye open for anyone pulling out of a store parking lot," he adds. And 57 percent of all traffic fatalities occur on rural roads, says Peter F. Crescenti, director of public information for AAA New York. Instead of winding through neighborhood streets to avoid a jam, see if you can adjust the time you leave in the morning. The 2010 U.S. Census notes that the majority of drivers head out between 7 and 7:29 a.m. Or download Waze, a free app that alerts you about traffic, police traps, accidents and other hazards so that you can choose the best route and shed time off your commute.

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