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RISMEDIA, April 20, 2011—(MCT)—It’s 7 p.m. and Todd Levine saunters out of his office, opens his car door, flips on his Bluetooth, and starts his nightly routine of sticking Post-It notes to his dashboard. As he heads north on the highway, one by one he peels off the Post-Its with phone numbers scribbled on them and makes the return calls. “I conduct my business and by the time I hang up, I’m in my driveway,” Levine says.

Levine, a Miami trial lawyer, has a similar routine in the morning. “By the time I get to my office, I have done at least 45 minutes to an hour of work.”

As workplaces have gone mobile, our cars have become an extension of our offices. People like Levine are using their commutes to boost productivity, to knock out a few hours of work on the drive in or get all those callbacks out of the way before dinner with the family.

The latest government numbers show one in six American workers commutes 45 minutes each way and extreme commuters—those who travel 90 minutes each way—is the fastest growing category. Around the world, researchers are studying how we spend our travel time to and from the workplace, and how commuting affects our stress and fatigue levels.

Jennifer Hughes, an associate professor of psychology at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, has surveyed 928 commuters and says her research on the physical and psychological effects of commuting has turned up some interesting discoveries.

“People don’t necessarily dread their commute,” Hughes says.

Now that more work is being done nationally and globally, those who work with people in multiple time zones find commute time is ideal for follow-up calls. Blogger Marc Rohde revealed that he lives in the Central Time Zone. He uses his morning commute to follow up with co-workers on the East Coast and his evening commute to follow up with co-workers in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.

Of course, distracted driving can endanger drivers’ safety and other motorists. Indeed, 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving. But even with those statistics, drivers are opting for distraction over rising stress from seething in traffic jams.

Some people view productive commuting as an alternative to staying late at the office. Chris Calcao, an interactive producer at an advertising agency, used to work only five minutes from home. When his employer relocated, his drive time increased to at least an hour each way. Instead of staying until 8 p.m. like he used to, he leaves at 7 or 7:30 p.m. and finishes his workday on the road. “If I hit traffic, it’s time to hit the BlackBerry and answer email or get on a call,” he says.

Sharon Madden, a human resources director for a grocery distributor, uses her daily drive time—an hour each way—for professional development. She typically has three or four leadership/management audio books stacked up on her front seat and uses what she learns from them in training programs. “Today, you have to be on top of your game. I’m not driving down the road aimlessly waiting to get to work. I’m sharpening my skills and learning best practices.”

Others occupy drive time with personal business: making calls to friends and family and reconnecting or making hair or dental appointments. Researchers in Canada have discovered that alternatives to stewing over traffic have health benefits and that listening to self-selected music does limit driver stress.

Even more, Hughes says, her survey revealed working mothers enjoy their daily commute, seeing it as valuable private time. “It may be the only time during the day when they have time to themselves,” she says. Unfortunately, she says, their commutes, more often than working fathers, are interrupted by multiple errands.

Calcao’s wife, Julie, a banker and mother of three, drives to work only when she has errands to run with her kids on the way there or back. Otherwise, she takes the Metrorail. When her commute ends, her mommy shift begins. She uses her 45 minutes of travel time to play games on her iPod or listen to music. “It’s my personal playtime.”

Raquel Alderman, a marketing director at the Miami Children’s Museum, will start her long drive home talking to her husband and typically cut it short to enjoy “me time” in the car. “It could be to just listen to the radio or just treasure the silence,” she says. “This to me is priceless, no one asking me for anything. Most people get upset when they hit traffic going home. I just see it as an opportunity for more ‘me time.'”

(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.