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Endless traffic jams ruin the beachgoing experience

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:21pm
Sunday afternoon is my beach time. For years, I've been trying to keep it hush-hush.

Here's my secret: You go late — say, 4:30 p.m. — so you don't deal with too much sun. At Sandy Hook, N.J. , the beach is free after 4 p.m. At some other beaches — because most of the visitors have left — you can actually find parking. Plus, the beach fees are waived as the sun begins to set.

Well, it looks like my secret's out.

This summer, the Garden State Parkway has become one long parking lot — even late on Sunday nights. For years, we would go home at 9 p.m. to avoid the traffic. Now it looks as if we're all leaving the beach at the same time. The stress of sitting in a stuffy car with three antsy children has overshadowed the joy of hearing the waves crash on the sand.

Weekends are supposed to provide relief. Instead, the shore traffic jams are rough — maybe even a bit shocking — for motorists who already struggle with long commutes to work during the week.

"It's a Catch-22," said Alan Gettis, a psychologist from River Edge, N.J. "We're going there to relax, but getting there and coming home might be anything but relaxing."

Unlike the predictability of weekday traffic jams on the New Jersey Turnpike or the Hudson River crossings, Jersey Shore traffic jams are becoming more unpredictable. Sometimes there is even congestion on Thursday nights as beachgoers try to get a jump on the weekend.

The most heavily used gateway to the Jersey Shore is the Garden State Parkway, specifically the Alfred E. Driscoll Bridge over the Raritan River, where traffic volume has increased 15 percent over the past decade. Recent reports from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the Texas Transportation Institute say that, largely because of the increasing beach traffic, New Jersey's traffic-delay rate has more than doubled over the past two decades.

Gettis said the delays create the same kind of tension that people typically feel when they can't control a situation — especially when an accident causes even heavier delays.

"We would rather be out there with no other cars," he said. "It's a whole different feel than what you have in the Midwest, where you have cornfields and you can just let go."

Driving, by definition, is a stressful activity. Even if you're not consciously feeling it, you're subconsciously experiencing it, psychologists say. In fact, it's one of the most stressful activities anyone can do in a given day.

Gettis said motorists feel "caged" when they're traveling on New Jersey's highways and experience the same sort of tension that animals have when they are forced to live in crowded environments.

"You start to see this abhorrent behavior," he said. "It could be very frustrating. You just have too many cars and people sharing a small spot."

Stress, as a result, can breed aggressiveness. The aggravation people feel after a long day of packing, loading the children and driving could be a reason why there's been a sudden rise in accidents on the Garden State Parkway this summer.

But this is the reality of living in a congested state like New Jersey, where driving is no longer the relaxing, Sunday-afternoon experience it once was.

Driver aggressiveness is a growing concern, too. John DeMarco, a counselor in Pompton Plains, N.J., said the American population is becoming "increasingly neurotic" with a shorter attention span and a need to have things "now."

Like a lot of things in life, getting upset over things you can't control is unnecessary, psychologists say. Gettis said he always tells people: "Yes, it's an inconvenience. But is it a tragedy?"

If you can't change the situation, he said, change the way you react to it — especially if the way you react can lead to trouble. Road rage, he said, can ruin lives.

"I had one patient who was behind a car that was holding up traffic. He wanted to go up to her and give her the finger, lean on the horn," he said. "It turned out to be my mother. He was very apologetic."

In my family, we've found alternatives — sometimes we scrap the trip to the beach and just enjoy a dip in the local town pool.

Or if we do go to the beach, we just stick around longer and wait for the traffic to ease on the Garden State Parkway. Enjoying the food of the Jersey Shore, for instance, is a good substitute for waiting in traffic. On the way home, we cool off with some ice cream, and the kids falls sleep.

Yes, we still hit some traffic. But at least we find some peace.

This Coping column was originally published in The Record of Bergen County, N.J. on July 31, 2007.
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