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Routine driving involves ‘hard to ignore’ micro-stressors, researchers say

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Houston — The daily commute – even in ideal conditions – can be stressful for drivers “for intriguing reasons,” says a team of Texas researchers.

For their study, a joint project between the University of Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the researchers tracked the driving and non-driving activities of 21 healthy young adults via their smartphones and smartwatches. Participants also responded to daily psychometric questionnaires via text message when not behind the wheel.

The researchers found that, when driving in similar traffic conditions, the participants who are predisposed to anxiety had a heart rate that was about five beats a minute faster than that of their counterparts who aren’t predisposed to anxiety.

In addition, all of the participants’ heart rates increased significantly with speed. When driving at 65 mph, they had an increased heart rate of about four extra beats a minute than when traveling at 25 mph, in similar conditions.

In both cases, the observed cardiovascular activation was linked to stress responses, according to a UH press release. The researchers note that with an average daily commute lasting around 60 minutes, their findings are “hard to ignore because of its substantial effect and its repetitive nature.”

Mike Manser, senior research scientist, and Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at Texas A&M, emphasize that the reported stress effect was measured during good weather and light traffic. “This sizeable stress effect stands to grow even bigger as the conditions get worse,” they said.

Added Ioannis Pavlidis, Eckhard-Pfeiffer Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at the University of Houston: “Because driving is ingrained into people’s lives, even individuals who exhibit the said stress responses are not consciously aware of them. Nevertheless, the responses are there, they are substantial and their long-term implications are unknown.”

The study was published online in the journal IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing.

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