Road to Nowhere

John Yeigh

I’M DEBATING whether my life is better described by Tom Cochrane’s Life Is a Highway or Eddie Rabbitt’s Driving My Life Away. In a recent article, I noted that our family has driven our cars about 1.9 million miles. Since I’m the family’s King of the Road, I’ve been along for at least two-thirds of that ride.

I’m also, alas, the king of lost time.

The average commuting speed in the Washington, D.C., area—where I live—has been estimated at 24 and 46 mph. Whatever the right number is, the roads here have been described as the nation’s most congested. Let’s split the difference and call it 35 mph. If I take my 1.25 million miles at 35 mph, I’ve been in a car for more than 35,000 hours. That works out to almost 1,500 days, or roughly four years.

Four years out of a likely 65-year adult life translates to about 10% of my total waking hours. That’s scary. These estimates don’t count our six years living overseas or time spent in others’ cars. However you run the calculation, this much is clear: A lot of my life has been spent in a car seat.

Despite this, I mostly didn’t mind my car time—as long as the car was moving. My long commute allowed us to live in a resort town, plus it gave my wife a shorter ride to work. I enjoyed audiobooks, practiced hundreds of work presentations to the windshield, pondered life’s daily challenges, worked by cell phone, listened to NPR and tuned into my favorite radio stations. My non-commuting car time—to get to family, friends or a vacation—were even less lamented.

I’m not alone in my comfort with Washington commuting, despite the congestion. According to a 2019 study by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, “Half of commuters were satisfied with their current commute,” even though they averaged 43 minutes. Yes, there’s a federally funded group to study transportation and gridlock around the D.C. beltway. Unfortunately, no post-pandemic update has been published.

Although my work commuting has ended, I still worry about lost car time—because my daughter has ended up with a similarly long commute. I don’t want her to spend as much time in cars as I have. Her commute is 51 miles each way and averages about 50 minutes since it’s all on uncongested highways.

My commute was 60 miles and also started under an hour. Over 25 years, it extended to 90 minutes and sometimes more. It lengthened due to population growth and constant accidents, which are averaging an astonishing 22,750 per year in the D.C. region. Distracted driving has been growing thanks to cell phones, which are said to be involved somehow in 64% of accidents worldwide.

I’m hopeful and reasonably confident that future generations won’t lose as much commuting time as we baby boomers have. Telecommuting is growing, with its adoption accelerated by the pandemic. In addition, today’s commuters enjoy a host of driving assistance and entertainment technologies to enhance car time, including the accident-causing mobile phone. And, of course, autonomous driving is coming.

Technology may rescue my daughter, but it won’t bring back the four years I’ve lost. As a retiree, my car time has declined precipitously because I have no commute and drive at off-peak hours. Still, my older cars don’t have the latest tech enhancements. My one concession: I now have access to drive-time music from SiriusXM or Spotify whenever I’m On the Road Again.

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