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Stress? The signs are all there

With cars stacked like pancakes and signs lit up like Christmas lights, Jim Horan pulled over during rush hour on U.S. 19 last week.

"It's aggravating," he said at the Best Buy in Clearwater, halfway home to Palm Harbor. "It drives me nuts."

Scientists say it just might.

In a new study, researchers at Texas A&M University have shown that commuting on city roads can make drivers stressed _ even after they've left the highway _ and make them less productive at work. Drivers on roads smeared with signs and stop lights developed high blood pressure, increased heart rates and more stress, the researchers showed.

They also found that drivers on city roads took longer to calm down afterward. Once at work, they responded less well to problems compared with other workers.

The research took five scientists at the School of Architecture in College Station, Texas, about five years and more than $75,000 to finish. It will be published in an upcoming edition of The Journal of Environmental Psychology, the study's authors said. The Times received an advance copy of the research.

The study's conclusions might be obvious to anyone on U.S. 19 or Dale Mabry Highway at rush hour, but not to the billboard industry.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America, based in Washington, criticized the research, even though the study did not single out billboards.

"When it comes to psychological effects, I think, as you will see with this study, it is very hard to pinpoint," said Kibby Burns, spokeswoman for the advertising association.

"There is research and there is research," added Mark Lappen, president of the International Sign Association, based in Alexandria, Va. "We have several studies that would indicate that proper signage is a tremendous help to the traveling public. In fact, it reduces stress."

Across America, businesses and developers agree. They regularly fight limits on road signs and highway development proposed by residents and city leaders.

In Clearwater, businesses on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard fought in 1985 when the City Commission banned signs. This year, the city plans to spend at least $700,000 to landscape the street. City leaders say too many signs and stores bombard the boulevard.

In Madeira Beach, residents have long criticized wall-to-wall condos on Gulf Boulevard because the buildings block the Gulf of Mexico.

"There is nothing attractive about a lot of the architecture here," said Joe Jorgensen, a Realtor and travel agent on Gulf Boulevard. "You are dealing with condo buildings and the concrete jungle."

In New Tampa, the city's northernmost suburb, residents want to limit signs on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. They recently negotiated with a McDonald's to build smaller golden arches by the Cross Creek subdivision. The New Tampa Rotary Club also sponsored a $156,000 project to beautify Bruce B. Downs, to keep it from becoming another Dale Mabry.

"My adrenaline always pumps twice as hard when I am driving on Dale Mabry Highway," said Bill Crump, president of the New Tampa Community Council.

The Texas research helps those like Crump who are trying to undo the ugly stretch of suburban streets that appeared after World War II. Urban planners after the war built roads to move cars efficiently, but they thought little of how the drive felt.

"We may live in suburbs and live among strip malls, but we hate it," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who wants to change development patterns. "We hate how they look, and we find it aesthetically horrific."

Turanchik thinks residents should play more of a role in how their communities grow. He also wants the County Commission to adopt more appealing design standards for houses.

"I think there is a difference in feeling," said Ray Chiaramonte, assistant executive director of the Hillsborough Planning Commission. "I actually like to ride on Bayshore Boulevard. When people come in from out of town, I take them for a drive on Bayshore. I certainly wouldn't do that on Dale Mabry."

The sensation is centuries old. In 1485, the Italian Renaissance architect Leon Alberti wrote that streets should be "rich with pleasant scenery." During the Qin and Han dynasties in China, builders first planted trees on the side of roads. In Europe in the 19th century, tree-lined promenades first became popular in cities.

Only now, though, have scientists been able to measure _ by monitoring facial muscle movement and blood pressure _ how nature makes us feel.

In their experiment, the Texas researchers hooked electrodes to the face, chest and arms of more than 160 college students. For 2{ hours, the students sat through exercises that tested their responses to stress. Sensors attached with gel to the students' bodies fed a computer continual data about hormone and muscle activity.

To measure how they responded, the students watched a television video of drives by the countryside, golf courses and city streets. The actual drives were filmed around Dallas, Austin and Houston.

Before and after the drives, the students sat through exercises that created stress. Electrodes monitored how the students responded.

The results fit the scientists' expectations. Generally, drivers on city streets felt the worst; and drivers on country road did better. There was one surprise though.

The most relaxing drive was past a golf course.