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MIT Is Making A Road Frustration Index To Measure Stresses Of Driving

Getting in the car can be a real hassle. The scientists at MIT are using elements of a lie detector hooked up to drivers to figure exactly how stressful it really is, and which places are the most stressful to drive.

Driving is stressful. To MIT researcher Kael Greco, piloting an automobile falls somewhere on the anxiety scale above giving a class presentation and below sky diving but just barely.

Those are the initial findings of a trial for what will become the Road Frustration Index, a plan from the MIT SENSEable Cities Lab and Audi to measure the stress of driving in 30 cities.

"Intuitively we all understand that driving is stressful, but it was surprising to see how high," he said referring to the results of nine preliminary tests where he and others were wired up with a variety of stress sensors as they cruised around the Boston area.

Kael Greco, MIT Researcher, monitors his own stress levels as he takes a test drive around the Boston area. (Courtesy of MIT Sensible Cities Lab).

Greco is a graduate student at MIT and the first guinea pig for the stress sensors. He took an early morning drive around the Boston area—suspensfully documented in a slick video below—and monitored his anxiety with cameras, sweat meters, and a Microsoft Kinect.

He readily admits he’s not crazy about driving. "I’m okay with it. I realize I get quite stressed out looking at the results," he said. So someone else might respond to traffic in a different way. "We want to identify what factors trigger stress," he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Time Use Survey, Americans spend on average 51 minutes a day behind the wheel. So improving the stress and strain of that daily drive could also have health impacts.

"I think it’s really interesting looking at it from the urban perspective, the stress-scapes of the city … what intersections and what areas of the city trigger the highest response," he said.

The work will have implications for wayfinding and GPS routing: in addition to putting in "fastest route," or "no tolls," you could also potentially put in "most pleasurable route," "or least stress or something," Greco suggests.

Here’s a peek at the early results:

Driving activities that increased stress measurements in Greco’s first trial were: getting honked at, getting lost, and getting sideswiped. Yes, that last one actually happened on the test drive for a project about stress and, no surprise, an accident and the exchange of paperwork after it do, in fact, raise Greco’s stress levels. For now this is as much musing on car culture and media project as it is index.

You can follow each of his stress-inducing incidents along a chart of the drive that pairs measured anxiety levels—using skin conductance measurement, one of the components of a polygraph test—with the time they happened, a photo, and the location plotted on a map. It’s all captured with the thoroughness of a scene in a Hollywood movie, or to be more exact, a car commercial. That makes sense.

For a reference point of how stressful driving is, Greco also measured himself doing an assortment of other tasks like eating, attending class, and giving a presentation and skydiving. Driving is more stressful, even before getting hit, than all of those activities except jumping out of a plane, at least for Greco.

He’s looking for funding to run trials in multiple cities and make an index.