Cincinnati traffic could be hurting more than your schedule; it could be impacting your health, too

Jackknifed big rig snarls traffic Downtown
Posted at 7:31 AM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-27 18:36:20-05

CINCINNATI — It should come as no surprise to Greater Cincinnati commuters that their trips to and from work at any point can involve sudden traffic jams and unexpected delays.

And for some that means stress -- lots of stress.

"It’s like a parking lot. You can’t move. I can’t go around other cars. They’re all sitting there, too," said Lauren Miller, a hair stylist living in Norwood and working in Delhi. Her commute every morning and evening includes one of the roughest stretches of Interstate 75 when it comes to traffic backup, spanning between the Norwood Lateral and Freeman Avenue.

"Especially when I get closer to Freeman, I can see my exit and it’s within arm’s reach, but I can’t get there," Miller said. "It’s frustrating."

Lauren Miller drives every day from her home in Norwood to her job, working as a hair stylist in Delhi. (Terry Helmer/WCPO)

It's a stress she's come to expect and has gotten used to: "I leave almost an hour before work just to make sure I get there on time," she said about what would, without traffic, be a 25-minute drive to work.

But prolonged, everyday stress -- like sitting stuck in traffic -- can have potentially serious impacts on our mental and physical health, according to Dr. Erica Birkley. She's an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and is a licensed clinical psychologist at UC Health's Stress Center.

"With a lot of our day-to-day stress -- like traffic being one of those, where we also might perceive a lack of control or influence over it -- essentially our brain and our body are having a prolonged stress response," Birkley said. "And that’s related to a number of negative outcomes" like gastrointestinal or cardiovascular disease.

"It's dangerous," Birkley said.

It's dangerous because Cincinnati commuters lose a significant number of hours to traffic congestion a year, meaning we spend a lot of time sitting stranded and feeling helpless in traffic jams. In other words, we spend a lot of time in a stressed state.

"Prolonged stress that we deal with repeatedly in our lives can really take a noticeable toll, both in the short term -- of interrupting how we would want our day to go -- but also in the long term," she said.

Long term side effects can be hardening of the arteries and increased risk for heart attack or stroke, especially in men, Birkley said.

Just how much time are Cincinnati drivers really spending stuck in traffic, though?

It's as many as 60 hours per year or more, according to global traffic analysis firm INRIX. They have indexed cities all over the world based on time spent commuting and time lost sitting in pumping-the-breaks or stand-still traffic.

For some perspective, 60 hours equates to an extra week and a half of full-time work -- every year. For many, this nearly negates the amount of vacation time their employers might allot them, if they're allotted any vacation time at all.

The Brent Spence corridor creates the sixth-worst bottleneck for road freight traffic in the nation, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.. The Ohio Department of Transportation is also in the midst of major road construction projects on Interstates 71, 74, 75 and 275. There is no shortage of orange barrels and lane restrictions here.

It's more time stuck in traffic than Miller realized she's actually spending.

"I never really thought about it until it just came up," Miller told WCPO. "There are so many other things I could do than sit in my car. Most days, after sitting in traffic, my car is the last place I want to be."

That routine nature of dealing with traffic makes it easy to miss how much stress drivers feel as a result of their time spent stuck behind the wheel, and that's what poses not just a mental health risk but a physical health risk, too.

First, prolonged or repeated emotional responses can establish persistent moods.

"It takes such a toll on our brain, and in turn, our mood," Birkley said. "In terms of all of that effort and that energy spent focusing our attention on how that event was stressful, that's going to create a chain-effect and keep moods around -- moods like depression."

But the impact can be physical, too.

"Over time, it can be related to things like hardening of arteries among men in general, and increased risk for cardiac events like heart attack or stroke," she said.

The long-term effects of being stuck in traffic trace back to the biological root of the stress response, Birkley said, which was never meant to linger in our minds or bodies like it can for hours at a time with something like traffic-induced stress.

"That stress response, biologically, it was only ever designed to be very short-term, to help us survive a threatening encounter, and then we would go back to a restful baseline," she said.

Dr. Erica Birkley, UC College of Medicine and UC Health Stress Center(Terry Helmer/WCPO)

For Birkley, if she's in a situation like being stuck in traffic, she asks herself, "Is it worth a strong anger reaction toward a person I'm likely never going to see again? Is it worth it for me to have this stress response in my body?

"The answer is usually, almost always no."

For someone like WCPO news photographer Terry Helmer, it can come down to learning how to adapt. Helmer spends much of his work days on the road en route to locations to shoot video for 9 On Your Side broadcasts. He also bookends those work days with often time-consuming commutes between West Chester and Mount Adams.

"I get the lovely both-end commute syndrome," Helmer said. Like Miller, he gives himself extra time in the mornings. "Normally it's a 25 minute commute, with no traffic or light traffic. I give myself an hour."

He said he's learned to rely on things like Google Maps, to an extent -- "It's not always right," he said -- or the Artemis billboards installed over the highways to give indications of possible back-ups.

"I'll also try to listen to music, or think about a project I'm working on at home," Helmer said -- anything to take his mind off what he can't control.

At the end of the day, he said it's about trying to let go: "Like most people, boy, when you're stuck in traffic, it's very frustrating. You're just helpless, you can't do anything about it. Sitting there it's just like, 'Come on, I need to go. Let's go!' But, you can't."

Birkley has similar advice.

"For long-term, chronic stress, especially where we don't have full control over something we can't change -- even if we want to -- how can we best lessen the effects of that stress?" she said. "What else could you do in that car that would be helpful for you personally? That might be different depending on the day, and that's going to be different person by person."

Birkley recommended consulting a licensed professional to lay out a treatment strategy if chronic stress if a part of one's life.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter ( @pat_laFleur ) and on Facebook.