Traffic jams

With the help of portable players and their favorite music, drivers sing away the stress of their long commutes

Donna Bentley wears a suit and commutes 45 minutes one way to her job as an assistant district attorney in New Bedford, yet something her children find criminal happens when she gets behind the wheel of her minivan: She sometimes transforms into Cher.

"Do you believe in life after love?" she sings passionately along with the thumping music. "I can feel something inside me say, I really don't think you're strong enough now."

Bentley, of Mansfield, joins cadres of working people who live double lives; they are among the untold numbers who rock out like Jon Bon Jovi in their Toyota Camrys, rage as Pink in their Ford Tauruses, or croon like Smokey in their Priuses.

A form of whistling our way to work, singing in the car, experts say, is a primal urge rooted in impulses scientists don't fully understand. But if our Neanderthal forebears hummed merrily as they dragged a carcass across the savannah - and scientists think they did - that same urge is alive and kicking today.

In fact, with longer commute times, and people taking advantage of an expanding array of hi-fidelity car options, specialists say car singers are anything but a dying breed.

Commutes can be made more bearable with satellite radio, where listeners can indulge in very specific fancies, like stations dedicated wholly to Led Zeppelin. Industry surveys suggest more musical options are down the road: Nearly all 2009 cars will come equipped with an iPod or MP3 jack allowing drivers to listen to the songs they choose.

It may seem like a small change, but it's not, said Dan Levitin, a psychology professor at Montreal's McGill University and author of the best-selling "The World in Six Songs; How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature."

"We're coming back in the last few years, listening more and singing more and making music more," Levitin said.

Today's 16-year-old will listen to more music than his "great-grandfather did in a lifetime," he said.

"You can hold in the palm of your hand the library of a large radio station," he said. "Technology has given us freedom."

That includes the freedom to sing in the car.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Traffic, Why We Drive The Way We Do and What it Says About Us," said he also suspects that more people sing in their cars, although no one has researched this conclusively. Studies have shown, however, that more people are traveling greater distances in their cars alone. And it is the semiprivate atmosphere of the car that may encourage many people to sing, and sing bad music loudly, Vanderbilt said.

"People have their iPod weaknesses, their secret, guilty pleasures," he said. "The car provides a place for those as well - the songs you don't want to play at home or at work."

Vanderbilt's secret, guilty car singing pleasure? '70s rock ballads by Todd Rundgren. For bespectacled Levitin, it's pop diva Rihanna.

And who hasn't seen someone on the highway belting out the words to a Toto song, or get

emotionally swept away by Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart?"

Sean Conway, a middle school teacher in Billerica, loads up his iPod with "bubble gum pop" and "old '80's hair band stuff" to energize him on his way to work.

Perhaps you've seen him driving along Route 2 on his way home from work in the afternoon. Bald and more than 6-feet tall, he yells out the words to Pink's "So What," singing to an invisible audience outside his Isuzu Trooper. He occasionally bashes the air with a fist or raises his leg in a mock kick even though his knee hits the driver's wheel. Sometimes the music grabs him so fiercely that he gestures with both hands, using his knees to control the steering wheel.

"I've got a 40-minute drive home and have dealt with kids all day," he said. "It makes me much more relaxed."

Here's his typical iPod lineup: Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold," Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me," Miley Cyrus's "7 Things."

"I'm not very good," he said. "But I don't let that stop me."

Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Richard Eubanks, who runs a statewide safe driver program for problem drivers, said he drivers face too many distractions on the road and car singers are a symptom of a larger problem. People use their iPods, cellphones, and even movie players while driving. In the last few years, text messaging has led to several fatalities.

"People are doing everything behind the wheel, I don't think there's much that I haven't seen them do," he said.

Singing in the car can be distracting, although it depends on the driver and the music, Eubanks said.

"If someone's listening to AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell,' they may not be driving as well as to Mozart," he said.

Yet Robert Beck, a psychologist who conducted research involving singers, said the music doesn't matter as much as the listener's reaction to it. His study of college singers at the University of California in Irvine found that singing releases chemicals that create a sense of happiness and well-being in the brain. Singing boosted immunoglobulin A, or IgA, a hormone that can overpower the stress hormone cortisol in the students Beck studied, activating their immune systems and flooding their bodies with "good protein."

"The emotion around the singing seemed to be what increased it," Beck said of the IgA. "People who say they have a pleasant experience while singing have more IgA."

This immunizing effect is not powerful enough to prevent a common cold, Beck said. But if you find Fugazi relaxing, or wailing with the White Stripes makes you happy, go for it. Beck said he uses Bob Dylan to "neutralize the effects of feeling stuck" in traffic.

"As I'm really grooving, my IgA just keeps going and overcomes any negative things that might be happening," Beck said. "You get in that state and . . . you are in the flow."

That's how Bentley, the lawyer mother from Mansfield, described singing in her minivan.

"It's like going to go get your nails done or going to the spa," Bentley said of her car singing commute. "I feel it's my time. I don't have to share the radio or answer the phone or answer to people that say, 'Donna, do this or that.' "

Brian Battersby, a software engineer, spends time each weekday at 7 a.m. setting up the MP3 player in his Saturn console. The lineup includes Christian rocker Jeremy Camp's "Trust in You." Some days, it takes him more than two hours to get from his home in Duxbury to his office in Bedford, so he uses the time to practice singing and get inspired.

He said he doesn't get embarrassed when people stare, point, or giggle. And he prefers singing with his car windows down.

"I sing fairly loud, sometimes I don't realize how loud I am," he said. "It basically relieves my tension and helps me not think about the two hours I'm losing [by driving] every day."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at 

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