In one experiment, Strayer and colleagues ran a simulation where people drove under the assumption that they were late to a meeting, and there was a financial incentive to get there before other people. One group drove in high-density traffic, another had an easier traffic environment. Some people were told there was a time limit.
Men more then women got into aggressive driving mode, showing an elevated blood pressure when under pressure to weave their way through heavy traffic. In general, both men and women who adopt an aggressive driving persona seem to show this, Strayer says.
"In the simulator studies we've done, they'll actually start driving by cars and flipping them off and honking at them," Strayer says. "That's just a computer, a computer rendition!"
Long-term stress increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, he says. Research on the precise level of cardiovascular risk is limited, but recent data doesn't paint a flattering picture for the vehicular commuter.
A 2012 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the farther people commute by vehicle, the higher their blood pressure and body mass index is likely to be. Also, the farther the commute, the less physical activity the person was likely to get.
Experts recommend making the extra effort to avoid peak driving hours. You may even end up getting home at the same time as if you had left earlier.
"Maybe it is better off to say, 'I'm going to put the radio on a station that's nice, and kind of chill out for the 30 or 40 minutes, rather than aggressively try to get home and beat everyone else,'" Strayer says.
Distractions: When driving kills quickly
People get bored while driving for a long time. They want something else going on while they're just looking at cars crawling around them. But some forms of entertainment are far more dangerous than others.
Strayer and colleagues used a driving simulator to look at just how distracting technology can be in the car. A 2008 study from his group, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, found that people made more errors driving while talking on a cellphone than while chatting with another passenger.
The impact of those errors is more than you might imagine. The researchers showed in a 2006 study that talking on a cellphone, in terms of how it impairs driving, is comparable to a blood alcohol level of .08, which is the legal limit in the United States.
About one in three fatalities on the road can be linked to some kind of distraction; some estimates put this figure even higher, Strayer says.
Distractions in your car can slow everyone else down, too, Strayer says. Computer modeling shows that if one car is not keeping up with the flow of traffic, the number of vehicles per lane, per hour, declines as more drivers are distracted. That can add precious minutes onto the commute you're complaining is too long anyway.
We all know that texting while driving is risky. But even hands-free, voice-activated interaction with phones can be distracting, Strayer says. Some conversations are not mundane -- you may find yourself in a heated argument or in the middle of a breakup talk (not to mention a breakup text).
What are the precise demands on your brain with voice-activated systems and what are the consequences of that? Bryan Reimer, research scientist at the MIT AgeLab and associate director of the New England University Transportation Center, is looking into this question.
Reimer is working with Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center to study the visual and nonvisual demands of your attention while driving. Results should be out sometime next year.
"If you feel anxiety and your phone goes off, that's a problem," Strayer says. With all of the notifications barraging our smartphones from e-mail, text, social media and calendars, "It's a little unclear what long-term consequences of that are."
Changing your commute?
After several years, the daily drive to and from work in high-traffic areas can really get under some people's skin.
"It was something that was taking an enormous toll on my overall happiness, on my ability to deal with stress, on the amount of free time that I had," says Micah Puett, who used to live in Atlanta and worked for Turner Broadcasting in the 1990s.