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Smell the Coffee: Road raging on Interstate 64

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For someone who doesn't commute all that far, I've spent an inordinate amount of time stuck in traffic lately.

And it's left me a bit puzzled. On a couple of fronts.

First is why much of the jams happen at all. I can understand if it's rush hour or the weather is bad or the morning glare of the sun is particularly blinding, but these recent wrecks and traffic jams have been on straight stretches with dry roads with overcast skies at random times of the day.

Second is why, when there's a wreck, the interstate seems to close down completely. I've traveled to Lexington repeatedly over the past six months, about 300 miles round-trip, and not once have I experienced a traffic stoppage. Yet in a single week, on the stretch between South Charleston and Teays Valley, I've experienced traffic at a complete standstill for up to an hour on three separate occasions. And this happens every week here.

It's become such a regular occurrence that, while attempting to entertain myself during these long stretches of forced downtime, I've developed a system for identifying personality types based on their traffic coping techniques.

For instance, I've noticed that you can recognize an optimist based on how they will continue to attempt to change lanes as they apparently believe the inches gained will enable them to reach their destination on time, while pessimists immediately put their car into park and roll down their windows the instant traffic grinds to a halt.

Out-of-towners are identifiable by the way they begin madly tapping at their smartphones, looking for alternative routes, while locals are distinguishable by their propensity for setting up roadside grills and beginning to tailgate.

The traffic problems have become so bad lately that I've been thinking about trading in my old Jeep for an ice cream truck. Perhaps a beer wagon.

I'm not a patient person where traffic delays are concerned, but my anxiety over being trapped in traffic came about legitimately, as it was 16 years ago this month when I went into labor while stuck in traffic while driving alone on Interstate 64 just past the Institute exit.

In my daughter's baby book is a sheet of notebook paper where, in neat handwriting, I jotted down the time of the first contraction so that I could do the math should a second one hit.

The handwriting on that second one, six minutes later, is still fairly neat, but when the next few came at five and four-and-a-half minutes apart -- and my car had only moved a few feet -- it's clear by the crazed scrawling handwriting, with letters digging into the page, that I was beginning to panic.

I began to envision how her roadside birth might play on the news. Tried to distract myself with road-related name possibilities, like Pylon or Dee-Laigh. Imagined how I could decorate her nursery in Road Construction Orange. Have a mobile over her crib with little barrels and flashing arrows. Sooth her to sleep at night with the sounds of idling engines and muttered obscenities.

Luckily, traffic started moving again, and I was soon at the hospital, where my daughter pulled the first of her many pranks on me by ceasing the contractions almost as soon as I arrived.

Still, the damage was done. From that day forward, when I get stuck in traffic, I begin to panic. I only recently learned there's a name for this condition. David Moxon, a psychology lecturer from Peterborough Regional College, coined the term Traffic Stress Syndrome to describe people like me.

According to an article on buzzle.com, when faced with traffic congestion, those afflicted will "go into a frenzy of panic modes, known as time-bomb phenomena," which can cause them to drive recklessly and without judgment to get as far away from traffic as possible.

It's a panic and flee mechanism, with physical symptoms that can include sweaty palms, increased heart rate, headaches and nausea. Personal experience prompts me to add that it can also trigger horn honking, rude hand gestures from other motorists, and the occasional traffic citation.

And in the near future, it might also trigger the sale of ice cream. Or beer.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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