How Healthy Is Your Car?

Admit it: You and your car have a love-hate thing going on.

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Zippin' down the highway? Pure bliss. But at rush hour, things can get ugly. (Traffic makes anyone snippy, and we're stuck in it for groan an average of 42 hours per year.) Score happier, healthier rides with these science-backed tweaks.

1. Shine Your Lights

If the lenses on your car's headlights are dirty or deteriorated, they can lose up to 50 percent of their light intensity, hitting the dimmer switch on your nighttime visibility, says the American Automobile Association (AAA). Wipe off dirt, or take a trip to the car wash. If you've had your car for five years or more, you should look into restoring the headlights' protective coating. An auto repair can do it, or you can go the DIY route with a restoration kit from 3M Auto.

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2. Slide Back, Sit Tall

Slumping in your seat compresses the disks in your spine, leading to lower-back pain, says Alan Hedge, PhD, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University. Perky posture will fix that — plus, it helps with alertness and energy, which you can't have enough of on the road. Hedge recommends adjusting the seat close to the steering wheel so your back nestles gently against the cushion. (Leaning forward adds pressure; sitting back keeps your spine happy.) To reduce shoulder strain, lower the wheel so your arms are slightly bent.

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3. Save Honking for Emergencies

You know not to flip the bird at another driver, but there's one more urge you should fight: laying on the horn to vent frustration. It can make other drivers more aggressive, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. We know, hard to resist, and biology's partly to blame.

"Road rage overrides the areas of the brain that handle impulse control and judgment," says San Francisco-based psychologist Robert Nemerovski, PsyD.

But you can — and should — break the habit, because aggressive driving may be a factor in more than half of fatal crashes, says an AAA study. For instant calm, Nemerovski suggests repeating a mantra: "Forget it. Drive on."

4. Listen to Reason

Screamy talk radio programs "can activate your nervous system's fight-or-flight response, which lowers your threshold for anger and opens you up to feelings of road rage," says Nemerovski. That's bad for your stress levels and for your safety. Stick to calmer news stations, mind-expanding podcasts (we like The Moth, Radiolab, Stuff You Should Know, and the TED Radio Hour), and happy-making music (like a chill-out playlist).

5. Clean Up Crumbs

Scientists at the University of Arizona found that food spills — hi, mysteriously sticky cup-holder substance — grew the most bacteria, which could lead to allergy-triggering mold. Use antibacterial wipes on hard surfaces, upholstery cleaner on the seats, and household carpet cleaner on the floor. Dusting and vacuuming at least once a month helps too.

6. For the Umpteenth Time: No. Phone.

Everyone knows that it's dangerous to text and take calls behind the wheel…. And yet approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or toying around with electronic gizmos on the road right now, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Chatting on a hands-free device isn't great either; about 26 percent of all car accidents are cellphone related, including hands-free.) To dial down the distraction, train yourself to pull over whenever you need to make a call or send a text. If the temptation is too hard to resist, give your phone a smart new home: the backseat.

7. Relocate Your Dry Cleaning

Freshly dry-cleaned clothes might have a residue of nasty chemicals. There's a chance that one of them could irritate your nose, eyes, and lungs. Try not to let dry cleaning sit for hours in a warm car, and move it to your trunk when taking a longer trip.

Less Mess = Less Stress

Random bottles, crumbpled sweaters, old sunnies... car hoarding happens. But a messy car can "trigger a big stress reaction," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out. So do a quick tidy-up, for your psyche's sake.

Surprisingly Clean Spots

Bacteria in high-touch places (wheel, door handle, gearshift) aren't likely to make you seriously ill, says Romney Humphries, PhD, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UCLA. Just swipe 'em regularly with anti-bacterial wipes.

Clear the Air

Instead of masking funky car smells with a perfumy cardboard tree or a plug-in air freshener, go natural. AAA auto maintenance expert Mike Calkins advises sprinkling baking soda on the carpet, letting it sit for 30 minutes to an hour, and then vacuuming it up. You can also place a bowl of plain barbecue charcoal (unburned) in your car overnight — it's a great odor absorber.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

More healthy driving tips from The Dr. Oz Show: 66 Clever Ways to Have a Healthy Road Trip


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