Clear highways can lead to leap in driver stress, study says

A study conducted by researchers from York University, which evaluated the effects of job-related stress on drivers, found that when they didn’t have to focus on the task of driving, they began fretting over work instead.

Right: Highway 401, Canada’s busiest highway

“In effect, good driving conditions give you the mental room to fume over any job-related problems that were happening right before you got into your car,” said David Wiesenthal, study co-author and professor in the Department of Psychology in York’s Faculty of Arts. “In this way, job stress begins to interact with your levels of driver stress and can negatively impact your perception and attitudes.”

The most common route among those surveyed? Highway 401, which is Canada’s busiest highway.

The study was conducted as part of a master’s thesis by co-author Christine Wickens, now a York PhD student. Researchers were shocked to find that moderate traffic congestion did not interact with job stress in the same manner.

“If you’ve had a very stressful day at work, and then you encounter bad traffic on your way home, it would seem logical that driver stress would rise as a result,” said Wiesenthal. “Our data shows this isn’t the case.”

“In moderately congested traffic conditions, where highways are crowded but vehicles are still travelling at 60 kilometres per hour, motorists must focus all of their attention on their driving. As a result, they simply can’t dwell on their workplace stressors,” explained Wickens.

Study participants were asked to pull off the highway and park their cars in order to answer questions via cell phone. Each was surveyed at separate, predetermined points in the course of their commute, after experiencing high- and low-volume traffic conditions.

Wiesenthal said the exception to the rule may be when traffic grinds to a halt, “what we expect to find in future studies is that severe congestion – the kind where traffic comes to a complete stop – would again require the use of only very minimal cognitive resources. In that situation, job stress levels should again impact the motorist’s driving.”

Right: A clear road ahead may muddy the thoughts of the driver behind the wheel

Some other interesting findings? “Gender had absolutely no bearing on driver stress,” said Wiesenthal.

Researchers also found the average commuting time of respondents was 2.6 hours a day. “With the astonishing amount of time we spend commuting, it’s extremely important to study not only driver stress, but links to behaviours that occur when we’re not behind the wheel,” said Wiesenthal.

Their future research will examine the possible carryover of stress from the highways to the home and workplace.

The study, titled “State Driver Stress as a Function of Occupational Stress, Traffic Congestion, and Trait Stress Susceptibility”, was published in the Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research.