Drivers share how nightmare commutes pack on pounds and stress marriages

Tim Skillern
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FILE - In this May 28, 2010 file photo, the rush hour commute starts in early afternoon and with greater intensity as traffic is jammed in both directions on Interstate 405 on the Westside of Los Angeles as commuters and vacationers hit the road. With a little advance planning, and some insider tips, summer vacations can be a lot less expensive. ( (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, file)

For 18 months, David Daly fought rush hour’s version of hell: the Los Angeles freeways. Five years ago, he logged well more than an hour each way every day during his 40-mile commute to a job in the aerospace industry.

Los Angeles is known, of course, for its oceans of red brake lights and nightmare commutes. In Texas A&M University’s most recent urban mobility study, the city placed second only to Washington, D.C., for the nation’s most congested roads. Its dubious distinctions include: the worst rush hours compared with normal traffic; the second-most hours spent in delays — a staggering 501,881,000 hours vanished from commuters’ lives in 2011, although that’s down from 632,212,000 hours in 2006; the second-most excess carbon dioxide from traffic congestion; and a third-place ranking for commuter stress.

Daly’s drive proved the perfect poster child for that stress benchmark. Twenty-nine and fresh out of the Marine Corps, he weighed 175 pounds when he started his job. Six months later, he topped 200. But more than his physical health suffered.

“I found I needed to eat on the commute home and lived out of fast food bags,” Daly, 34, writes in a first-person account for Yahoo News this week. “McDonald's, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, Chick-fil-A and many others became the standard. Often I would buy two entrees or more. It became common practice to eat three to four burgers while driving home. I had trouble sleeping, averaging only three to four hours of sleep a night. The lack of sleep, coupled with my weight gain, increased issues with my PTSD.”

Share your story: Do you have a commuting headache? Tell us about it in the comments.

At first, Daly was “ecstatic” to find work that included international travel, increased responsibility and a six-figure salary. But soon it wasn’t worth it. He’d leave home between 4 and 5 a.m. to avoid traffic. The rare 30-minute commute was a boon. The afternoon drive, he says, was worse: Anything less than 90 minutes meant a good day.

“I started to hate any day I had to work,” Daly says.

Luckily for his sanity, his company laid him off in the recession. “I am probably one of the few people that felt joy in getting fired,” he said. Slowly he’s undone the damage from the “shackles” of a long commute.

“In the end, happiness and your health are not worth sacrificing,” Daly says. “My own experiences have led me to believe that long commutes have a negative impact on the human body.”

His story is neither unusual nor surprising. The U.S. Census Bureau said in March that about 8.1 percent of American workers commute 60 minutes or more. Nearly 600,000 full-time workers endure what the Census dubs "megacommutes" — when we’re stuck on the road for 90 minutes and 50 miles. The average one-way trip is 25.5 minutes. Those drives not only zap our time, they also make us unhealthier and more likely to divorce. Erika Sandow’s study through Umeå University in Sweden, for instance, discovered “that long-distance commuters run a 40 percent higher risk of separating” than others.

Daly’s perspective is one of several Yahoo News published this week when we asked drivers to share their nightmares from the road and how their commutes — even in positive ways — have affected their lives. Here are excerpts from others’ stories.

Commute piles on pounds, stress and exhaustion

Laura Quinn of Tampa, Fla., has four commuting options: an industrial highway route choked with factory smoke, trucks and railroad crossings; a toll road that requires forking over $20 a week; the main highways into downtown that entail 20- to 40-minute delays during rush hour and a high number of accidents; and a commercial route that winds past fast-food joints, malls and car dealerships, and includes several stop lights. She writes:

All of them stress me out and steal my time. I drop my 19-year-old son off at his fire academy training by 8 a.m. before heading to work in my little Ford Fiesta to the downtown area of Tampa. Traffic, road construction and detours, as well as rude drivers, are all giving me gray hair in my early 40s. Although I'm a Christian woman, I hear myself cursing as drivers cut me off or fail to yield.

I wasn't surprised to read a recent article from The Week that points out the 45-minute daily commute can ruin a person's health and marriage. Since I've had this particular commute for the past three years to my job as an editor for a media company, I've gained about 20 pounds. Experts say people who have longer commutes have higher body-mass indexes and blood pressure. Because I'm delayed in traffic, I end up stopping for carryout instead of making my husband and son a healthy home-cooked meal every night like I used to do.

No matter which route I take for my commute, there are always headaches.

My son and I wake up at 6 a.m. Monday through Thursday to get him to the student training center for firefighters by 8 a.m. I pick him up on my way home from work at the end of the day, which means we end up battling rush hour traffic for at least an hour. We are usually too exhausted to do anything other than turn in for bed early, which stresses my marriage.

Long commute damaged health and marriage

Morris Armstrong of Danbury, Conn., has commuted for 40 years and understands the costs are not just in gas, train tickets and subway tokens. Commuting stole his time. From 1973 to 1995, he’d wake at 4:30 a.m. every day for a nearly 90-minute commute to Manhattan, where he worked as a currency trader. A long day meant he’d arrive home at 8 p.m. It affected his marriage and his health. He writes:

That was the tradeoff for the job.

Of course, eating dinner late is not healthy and can lead to weight gain as well as preventing a good night's sleep. I always weighed in at about 180 pounds, and after a few years of commuting, my weight was 220. Sometimes I had trouble sleeping, and the cause was a combination of worrying about the markets and the late meals slowly digesting in my stomach. When you are only getting six or so hours of sleep, and one or two of those are restless, it takes its toll. Poor sleep habits can be a cause of weight gain, a vicious circle.

My wife, who worked locally when she did manage to keep a job, did not like being home alone. She felt lonely. I remember one evening when I got home a few hours later than usual because there had been an accident on Metro North. The train schedule was seriously disrupted. Rather than showing any sympathy, my wife yelled at me for being late, complaining that she was alone. Years later, while we were getting divorced, that evening came up in discussion.

Ending my daily commute made me happier, healthier

Molly Golden of Rapid City, S.D., knows a harrowing drive isn’t limited to the big cities. Commuting in a city of 70,000 takes its pound of flesh, too. For a year and a half, she’d head out at 7:30 a.m. for a 25-minute drive to the other side of town. The commute exhausted her. She was spending $50 every two weeks on gas on a humble salary. She writes:

When I complained about my commuting hassles to my brother, who lives in Los Angeles and spends two hours a day driving (on a good day), he'd just laugh and tell me I was crazy: "A 30-minute drive to work is nothing!"

It wasn't nothing to me. I was incredibly unhappy with my daily drives, and the wear and tear on my already-beaten-up 1996 Buick Mercury Sable wasn't helping matters. As I became increasingly discontented with the commute, I also started despising my job. I fell asleep at my desk; called in sick to avoid making the drive in the snow; lost weight from the stress of it all; and gained grey hairs — even though I was still in my 20s. I knew it was time to make a change.

In June 2012, I quit my PR job and found a part-time position working with elderly people closer to my apartment. In fact, my new job only required me to cross the street on foot! The remainder of the time, I worked as a freelance writer and marketing consultant from home. My blood pressure lowered — and because of the time I saved driving, I had more time to prepare healthy meals and to exercise.

Not only was I happier, I was healthier, too.

Read more first-person accounts from the road:

Making the best of a long work commute

My long commute put stress on my new relationship

Substantial commutes to work are hurting us

Commuting in Alaska a different, but still aggravating, nightmare