In commuting world, traditional gender roles detrimental to women’s health

By Chris Spahr

While still in the early phases of being incorporated into transportation policy making, the health effects associated with commuting are becoming more apparent to public health officials and transportation researchers. Most often, these studies focus on the very relevant issues of traffic fatalities and motor vehicle pollution affecting both drivers and to a much larger extent, people living near busy roadways, especially in the case of air pollution.

Vehicle owners are becoming more aware of how their driving habits directly impact air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and global climate change. And great strides have been made in public safety measures to help control crash fatalities. However, all types of commuters may not be fully aware of how their habits affect their individual health outcomes. Numerous studies have shown the relationship between commuting and health outcomes focusing on sleep habits, social interaction, and stress. One particular study conducted by Erika Sandow of Umeå University in Sweden found a statistically meaningful link between commuting and earlier death—but only for women who had a low income or low level of education. These correlations grew stronger as the commute lengthened. Sandow and her team couldn’t answer why women were disproportionately affected by these long commutes, but wondered whether it was due to stress associated with greater household obligations than men.

Building on the commuter stress studies, a recent Washington Post article points out that the stress of driving is disproportionately affecting women.  A British study found that women reported higher stress levels related to the daily drive than men did—particularly women with pre-school age children, who experience a psychological effect four times greater than that of men with children of the same age. The increased stress is most likely attributable to “trip chaining”, which involves multiple additional stops to drop off children at day care or to pick up groceries at the market. This implies that while women have experienced advances in the workplace and as wage earners, the traditional family roles haven’t changed much, especially in the U.S.  When combined with the traffic congestion experienced in metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., this societal role could be taking real tolls on the health of women.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.