After a long day of work, you tiredly get in your car, with your only thought being to get home and crawl into bed. You pull out of the parking lot and enter the streets, lost in your thoughts. After what feels like a few moments, you pull onto your driveway with no recollection of how you got there. You glance at the clock and notice that 20 minutes have gone by! It’s like your brain went into a trance, with your hands and feet operating merely in autopilot. This phenomenon is known as “Highway Hypnosis”. And it’s more common than you think.
Highway hypnosis, also known as “white line fever,” is an altered mental state in which a person can drive a car for a great distance, and continue responding to external events in a safe and expected manner with no recollection of having consciously done so. It’s one of the most dangerous, yet least talked about, types of distracted driving, with a host of cognitive effects, but it’s also avoidable. According to Sean Meehan, a University of Michigan kinesiology professor, a driver who has lapsed into highway hypnosis is experiencing slowed brain activity. Essentially, the different parts of the brain aren’t communicating with each other as frequently as when a person is fully conscious. As a result, a driver’s reaction time is slowed, which can make it nearly impossible for a driver to safely react to changing roadway conditions. A red light, a merging vehicle, or a pedestrian crossing the street may create a hazard that a semi-conscious driver cannot quickly avoid. Slowed reaction times can lead to collisions the driver otherwise would have been able to prevent.
It’s important not to confuse highway hypnosis with drowsy or fatigued driving. While highway hypnosis is one symptom of a drowsy driver, the latter is a much more dangerous threat on the road. There is some evidence that suggests a person experiencing highway hypnosis is still scanning the road for threats. However, when a driver is tired, they experience reduced awareness of other drivers and obstacles. Drowsy driving impairs coordination, judgment, and memory, all things that are still maintained under highway hypnosis, just done unconsciously.
Some other things that can contribute to highway hypnosis is the type of road you’re traveling on and the journey you’re taking. If you are embarking on a long road trip with a straight road that doesn’t have a lot of stops or turns, it can lull your brain into a semi-conscious state. A road with frequent stops or changes in scenery, however, can keep your brain alert and prevent falling into a hypnotic mental state. Roads you drive often, such as on a commute to work, are also more likely to lead to highway hypnosis.
So how can you prevent your brain from falling prey to this phenomenon? You can help to prevent highway hypnosis by keeping your brain from becoming too relaxed, since you want to avoid slipping into an unconscious state of mind. Preventing highway hypnosis takes a lot of the same actions as preventing drowsy driving. You can try driving with the windows down or with loud music. It’s best to avoid listening to relaxing music or boring podcasts if they make you drowsy or cause your mind to start wandering.
Things such as turning on the air conditioning, driving throughout the day, or taking regular breaks can all help. You want to do everything you can to keep your mind alert, so you can safely get home and take that well-deserved nap.
This article was written by Stavya Arora, Journalism Committee Intern
- “Highway Hypnosis: What Is It and What Does It Tell Us about Ourselves?” Mindset Health, www.mindsethealth.com/matter/highway-hypnosis.
- “What Is Highway Hypnosis?” Solomon Law Group, 28 May 2020, solomonlawsc.com/2020/05/what-is-highway-hypnosis/.
- “Dangers of Highway Hypnosis: Drowsy Driving & White Line Fever.” Anapol Weiss, 3 Apr. 2019, www.anapolweiss.com/what-is-highway-hypnosis/.