- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 4, 2006

Traffic in the Washington area can make or break your day. Important enough for radio announcers to advise commuters of trouble spots every 10 minutes, it can affect your job choice, neighborhood selection and especially your mood.

That’s why a host of products are available to turn car time — which is growing longer every year — into multitasking time.

One could shave on the way to work, listen to the latest best-seller, even jolt up with coffee from a car-charger pot. It is possible to phone home simply by saying your wife’s name, punch in directions on your global positioning system, pick up a faraway Texas Rangers baseball game on satellite radio or watch a “Star Wars” DVD on the built-in back-seat player.

These inventions could come in handy for many Washington-area commuters, who rank fifth in the nation in time spent in the car each day, says Alan Pisarski, author of the book “Commuting in America.” Mr. Pisarski, who lives and drives in Northern Virginia, says “with a little push,” the Washington area can surpass New York (No. 1) in traffic tie-ups.

As the Washington area has experienced dramatic growth over the past 20 years, so have traffic headaches. The suburbs have sprawled toward West Virginia, taking a large number of jobs with them. That means people are going in all directions, all the time. It’s not just Interstate 66 that gets backed up, Mr. Pisarski says; it’s also Rockville Pike, Lee Highway and dozens of other suburban thoroughfares.

“What has become dramatic about Washington is the distances people are traveling,” Mr. Pisarski says. “When jobs moved out toward Dulles, for instance, it permitted people to move even farther out. And even though so many jobs are in the suburbs now, we have this great big federal establishment — the government — that isn’t going anywhere. People are still forced to go to the center.”

There is evidence that people aren’t often living near work in the outlying areas, which adds to the traffic problems, Mr. Pisarski says. Nationally, about 22 percent of people leave their home county to go to work. In Prince William County, that rate is 65 percent; in Fairfax, it’s 48 percent. In Maryland, nearly 60 percent of Prince George’s County and 63 percent of Howard County residents go elsewhere to work.

“Spending time in your car is just a given,” Mr. Pisarski says.

Steve Settle knows that all too well. He lives in Martinsburg, W.Va., and works as a grounds and structures supervisor at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He is what transportation experts call a “supercommuter.”

His day starts at 4:30 a.m., when he drives to Urbana. Then he meets his van pool for the ride to Crystal City. That’s a total of 93 miles and two crossings of the Potomac River before the sun even rises.

Even with all that time spent in the van, the group is still pretty low-tech.

“My van pool is a hoot,” Mr. Settle says. “We talk about everything and anything.”

Mornings are quiet — several commuters get on board and go back to sleep. The return trip is more animated. Good old talk radio such as “Don and Mike” or Sean Hannity is the usual entertainment. So is conversation — usually about the Redskins or “American Idol.”

“We have a CD player, but I think we’ve only used it once,” Mr. Settle says.

Easing the ride

If there were a hall of fame for car gadgets, the cup holder would be the first inductee. What used to be a flimsy ring of plastic has become a standard and sturdy item in late-model cars. The typical minivan, for instance, has about eight cup holders, and there is a wide variety of items to fill them.

Instead of just water bottles or coffee cups, there are soups, smoothies, boxes of cookies and salads packaged to fit in the cup holder, ready to feed drivers and passengers.

Another watershed for commuters — the cellular phone, of course. More than 150 million Americans carry them. The latest Bluetooth technology has made cellular phone use a streamlined and hands-free experience.

Cellular phones, even in places where talking on a handset while driving is prohibited, can make car-bound commuters feel they are not sitting in traffic, says Mr. Pisarski.

“The cell phone is the single thing that has permitted us to get past the pain of being in our cars for so long,” he says.

For Tom Bodamer of Winchester, Va., audiobooks are crucial to his 110-mile daily commute to and from his job at Aspen Jewelry Design in Herndon.

Mr. Bodamer has plowed through the Harry Potter series, all of the “Chronicles of Narnia” books and various science-fiction titles. He says he often sits in the car for a few minutes at his destination, captivated, to get to the end of a chapter.

“It’s probably the easiest way to pass the time,” he says. “Listening to books on tape keeps me calm.”

The audiobook market is an $800 million industry, says Mary Beth Roche, president of the Audio Publishers Association, a trade group. Downloadable files recently have introduced audiobooks to a whole new group of listeners, she says.

“Car time does not have to be lost time,” she says. “I keep reading surveys where people say ‘I wish I had more time to read.’ An audiobook is like the gift of time. You can choose to be entertained or have an educational experience while you drive.”

Office to go

As technology improves, some drivers eschew a trip to the office in favor of turning their cars into offices. The car as office actually is nothing new — think about traveling salesmen, Realtors, insurance adjusters, home appraisers and others who always have been mobile. What is new is the variety of options, says mobile-office consultant Catherine Roseberry.

“I’ve seen people driving down the road and typing on a laptop at the same time,” she says. “Now that frightens me.”

When the car is stopped, it can be turned into a well-equipped office. In addition to a cellular phone and a laptop or hand-held computer, there are desks that can attach to the steering wheel, mobile filing cabinets and hard-wired printers and scanners.

“One item I particularly like hangs over the back of the front seat [and turns into a desk],” Ms. Roseberry says. “It puts you in a safer position.

In November, Ford introduced the F-250 General Contractor pickup truck. The custom truck features a global positioning system, wireless broadband and a removable touch-screen computer mounted on the transmission tunnel within reach of the driver. Optional equipment includes a printer, a credit-card scanner and a digital camera.

Ford plans to include these options as dealer-installed accessories later this year.

When the computer is mounted in the truck, it is powered by the truck’s battery and is connected to the various other accouterments.

“You don’t have to be tied to your desk,” Ford Marketing Manager Marty Collins said at the truck’s unveiling. “You don’t even need a desk.”

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