Comments & Curiosities: If mice drove cars, what would they tell us?

This is huge. Seriously.

It's the biggest thing to come out of USC since Paul Salata.

Ever heard of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering? Neither have I.

But here is all you need to know. This week, researchers at the school published a study in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal that finally, finally proves something that I have suspected for years: Spending too much time on the freeway can cause brain damage.

Apparently they've never been on the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway. Anyone who drives it could have told them that, which would have saved them a bundle. But, it's gratifying to see that now there is science to back it up.

What's really interesting, though, is that the study didn't involve humans — it involved mice. Yes, it is true. Spending too much time inside a car on crowded freeways causes brain damage in mice.

At first I couldn't understand how they could teach mice to drive — pedal extensions maybe, but then, I am not an engineer. Todd E. Morgan, one of the researchers in the study, explained it all.

Morgan told KNBC News that he and his colleagues duplicated the environment inside a car on a crowded freeway exactly — what we would call "trying to get to Angel Stadium on the 55 at 6 p.m." — in their lab, with just the right blend of exhaust-filled air.

They then exposed the little mouse drivers to it over a period of weeks. The results? Compelling evidence that too much time on the freeway can cause not only brain damage, but heart problems, memory loss and … I don't remember the last one.

Wait, I remember — lung problems. Can you apply the data from mouse drivers to human-type drivers?

"We can only definitively say what happens to mice," Morgan told KNBC News. "However, there is suggestive evidence that similar effects may be happening in humans."

Suggestive or not, doc, the evidence is good enough for me.

For one thing, I can personally attest to the memory loss part and I'm thrilled that at least I now know what's causing it — clearly, too much time on the freeways. I spend a good deal of my day (and night) racing from one meeting or event to the next, invariably late for my next deal.

Does this ever happen to you? Please tell me it does.

You tell everyone, "Sorry, I gotta run," race to your car, charge up the on-ramp, do a fist pump because the meter isn't on, carefully merge into traffic, with only one problem — you can't remember where you're going.

It is a very strange feeling. You're late. You're sure of that, but you just can't remember where you're going, which makes it really hard to know if you're going in the right direction. It usually only lasts a few seconds, thankfully, and you say to no one in particular, "Oh yeah … there."

Even though you are alone, you still blush. But don't you see? Thanks to the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and their mouse drivers, I am no longer ashamed. It's not me. I am a textbook case of freeway-induced brain damage. I can feel good about myself again.

I don't know if there were any recommendations in the study, but obviously there are some common sense measures that all of us can take.

First, try to avoid driving on freeways if at all possible, especially if you're a mouse. Don't go to Angels games, Ducks games, Riverside or anywhere else that would cause you to get on the 55 Freeway.

The San Diego (405) Freeway is fine, except from 6 a.m. to midnight. If you think you're experiencing freeway brain damage, pull off immediately, roll down both windows on the passenger side and breathe deeply.

If it doesn't pass within 45 minutes, print up a sign that says, "Help me; been on the 55 for 6 hours; don't remember where I'm going," and hold it against the driver's window.

Do not under any circumstances open the driver's window. Emissions, particulates and car parts molecules can cause brain damage, acid reflux, incontinence, hair loss, really bad hiccups and in rare cases, speaking in tongues. Most important, stay calm.

I think that's it. Mice on the freeways, humans on the go and Angels games. It's complicated. Listen to the experts. They know this stuff.

I gotta go.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World