Admittedly, I am one of those people who always thinks she can fit in doing one or two extra things before hitting the road for an appointment or event, which, unfortunately, makes me late, on average, one out of two times. I look at my GPS and see my destination is only 15 minutes away, but inevitably I don’t arrive until 30 or 40 minutes after getting behind the wheel. Even though I often leave five extra minutes to spare, I never seem to gauge it just right. I don’t blame my poor timing as the cause for my tardiness, as much as I blame these three major reasons: I-95, I-76 and U.S. Route 1.
Where I live, I can’t avoid any of these highways, and yet they are the cause of my lateness and my daily distress at being on time. I hold my breath when I swing onto Interstate 95 or onto the Blue Route ramp, hoping with all my hope, that I see the cars buzzing along at normal speed with no backups. Two exits up, my heart drops … here comes the backup — fooled again.
Years ago, I visited California, and there always seemed to be massive traffic backups on the freeways. I can actually recall thinking, “How can people live like this and put up with this, day after day?” I got my answer loud and clear about two decades later as I sat in another daily traffic jam on Southbound 95.
The truth is, whenever I get off at the next exit and wind through alternative routes, I wonder how much quicker I get to my destination than if I just sat there grinning and bearing the jam, inching along. Even the side streets and off-the-beaten-path routes seem to have their share of heavy traffic these days. We must accept that traffic is just a way of life around here and almost impossible to avoid, especially if we are regular travelers on Baltimore Pike, 95, the Blue Route, 252, the Conchester, 320, 420, West Chester Pike and the list of our other local congested highways and byways goes on and on. The Delaware Valley is a desirable place to live for tons of reasons and because everyone else thinks it is too, we are stuck with extreme traffic that is likely only going to get worse in coming years.
Since we’re plagued with spending countless hours sitting helplessly in traffic, we better figure out ways to make the best of it. I’ve been doing some informal research, asking around to see what people do when they’re stuck in traffic and how they make use of the down time. From all the answers I received, I compiled this list, while I was stuck in traffic of course, to inspire you to make use of all that idle tied-up-in-traffic time productively:
• Returning phone calls, with hands-free devices of course, is a great way to distract drivers from stressing about the traffic, yet not distract them from the road. The newer cars have those cool setups to make phones hands-free (I don’t have one, but my speaker phone option works just fine). By making your necessary phone calls, you can get that out of the way for the day. Other calls to make you feel as if you are accomplishing something while just sitting there with the clock ticking away are ones that you have been putting off, like calls to the cable company or to set up doctor’s appointments. Truthfully, though, if the traffic jam is really critical, I find it’s better to call a friend who will have good gossip or keep you laughing, rather than a phone call to someone who may add more stress to what already likely is a stressful situation. You want to lighten your mood with conversation, not add to your agita, which may already be climbing through the roof from being tied up in traffic.
• Learn a new language or other skill by listening to a CD or other instructional voice device, listen to an audio book or concentrate on learning the words to favorite songs you’re playing. I actually won tickets to a Halloween attraction in a radio contest when I was stuck in traffic this fall. I heard the question, thought I knew the answer and because I was just sitting in traffic, I called the number. Luckily I was the 10th caller and scored the tickets! Chances are, I never would have paid attention to the contest or called in if I wasn’t just sitting there biding time. Many people in my little survey said that they tune into talk radio and get fully engaged in the conversation, which makes time fly. Several said that they get so involved that they will often call in to voice their opinion. One person told me that she gets done one to two audio books per month while commuting because of all the traffic. Yikes, I thought, she must really spend a lot of time sitting on those roadways.
• If you’re not alone but with riding companions, turn off or lower your radio and ask your children, spouse or friends to put down their devices so you can engage in an actual conversation. With everyone on the go in different directions these days, it’s rare to find time for good, quality conversation, especially with kids who are always buried in TV, video games, cellphones, tablets and other electronic devices. Use those prolonged periods, stuck together in traffic with no escape to engage in one-on-one, good old-fashioned, heart-to-heart conversation with a child, spouse or friend.
• We often tell people, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” One friend said she keeps a little running prayer list where she adds names so that she doesn’t give out false promises of praying without really doing it. Being stuck in traffic is a perfect time for reflection and prayer. Grab the prayer list from your purse or pocket and start praying, not for the traffic to break, but instead for the people on your list who need the prayers.
• I am the queen of doing this next one — paint your nails during this unproductive down-time on the road. I hate taking the time for my nails to dry when I am home, so by painting them on the go like this, they dry while your hands are on the wheel. I keep my nail polish right in my car’s console so if I didn’t get a chance to polish at home, I get it done when the time unexpectedly presents itself and the nails can dry by the time I reach my destination. After conducting my little survey, I felt better discovering that I wasn’t the only one whose car doubled as an impromptu nail salon.
• If you have a voice record feature on your smartphone, the sky is the limit on all that you can accomplish hands-free while you’re stuck in traffic. You can jot down ideas or make a list of what you need to pick up at the store or what you need to pack for vacation — whatever it is that is on your mind at the time of the traffic jam. If you’re in school, write an outline for a paper or project with the record feature. Being able to talk and record has limitless possibilities. In the quietness and stillness of the car, it’s amazing how many new ideas pop into your head.
• I was surprised how many people told me that when they’re stuck in traffic, they like to emotionally cleanse. I thought I was unstable because I, too, often have a little cry or talk aloud about something bothering me so it’s all out of my system for the rest of the day when my commute is over. After doing my little informal survey, I found out there are many others, who often break down in their cars when they are alone. I don’t know why our alone time in the car always feels like a safe spot to let go emotionally, but for some reason, it often does. Although it’s good to let it all out, try not to glance over at the car next to you while in the traffic jam so they don’t stare at you in your therapeutic sad state. Also, if you are a woman, be sure to keep a little bag of makeup on hand to quickly reapply and touch up the tear-stained damages when you reach your destination.
• I was surprised to learn how many people do mini exercises when sitting still, but I guess the concept is the same as the “chair exercises” that I’ve watched people do over at the senior center. I was told to stretch my neck by tilting my head to one side and holding it for about 10 seconds, then do the same to the other and to do that forwards and back, too. Then exercise stomach muscles by sucking the belly button in toward the spine and holding. Other simple things are doing spine straightening, butt squeezes, small leg raises and shoulder rolling. Who knew traffic jams could provide workout time?
• For most of us, silence is very hard to come by. Instead of stressing and going in a meltdown over being stuck in traffic, try looking at it in a different way. Sitting in silence and meditating might be exactly what the doctor ordered. While others are banging on their steering wheels and going in a tiz about something you really can’t do anything about, take a deep breath and relax a bit — just a little, you don’t want to recline your seat or doze! Even in stopped traffic, you need to stay alert and be on guard. Think of the traffic jam as a rare minute or two (or 10 or 30) to just chill out from the noise and hustle and bustle of life.
• Don’t forget that Pennsylvania motorists can check conditions on more than 40,000 roadways by visiting 511PA.com. If you have time to check before hitting the road, the PennDOT site is free and available 24 hours a day and provides traffic delay warnings, weather forecasts, traffic speed information and access to more than 770 traffic cameras. PennDOT also partnered with the popular crowd-sourcing traffic app Waze. The app shows users a map of their route along with updates from other users. Users are able to report accidents and road conditions. PennDOT shares its information with Waze so often, drivers can get a good picture in how bad that traffic jam is that they’re sitting in and how long they’ll be stuck in it.
Traffic is just our way of life, so there’s no use becoming frustrated or angry about it, time after time, day after day. Please, whatever you do, don’t start beeping your horn to add to everyone’s already-annoyed state of mind. It gets you nowhere, except on other motorists’ raw nerves. Remind yourself daily that it is what it is. At-ti-tude is everything, so try to look on the bright side of things and choose something from the above list to occupy your time and to keep from going mad when you’re happily cruising along and hit that dreaded traffic snag. Trust me, I know that’s easier said than done, as I sit there, time and again, chastising myself that I should have left earlier, given myself more time for my commute. My mom says I am going to be late for my own funeral. And you know what I say in response? That will totally depend if the hearse can avoid taking I-95, Baltimore Pike or the Blue Route!