Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve zoned out while driving? Ever looked up and seen a sign telling you you’re a few miles closer to your destination, with no memory of how you got there? You could have been experiencing “highway hypnosis”, and it’s worth brushing up on what causes it – and how to beat it – before your next road trip.
What is highway hypnosis?
Highway hypnosis, sometimes called “white line fever”, is the trance-like state that can take over while driving.
It’s not necessarily caused by tiredness, but feeling sleepy is one of the signs to watch out for. Your thoughts might wander; stretches of the journey could pass without you consciously noticing; you might catch yourself drifting over the center line or off the side of the road. If you have a passenger with you, they might be first to spot that you're spacing out.
Coming over all glassy-eyed is clearly not a great thing to happen while in control of a 2-ton motorized hunk of metal, but does highway hypnosis lead to more collisions?
Maybe not, according to some. Speaking to BBC News Magazine in 2013, hypnotherapist Stuart Robertson said that he believed a driver’s reaction times may not be negatively affected by highway hypnosis. It’s a view that is shared by others, although there are also those who vehemently oppose it. “Driving without awareness” has come up in legal cases following road accidents, although it can be very difficult to piece together what was happening in the moments leading up to a crash.
The debate is still live on this issue, but we can probably all agree that having your attention fully, and consciously, on the act of driving at all times is the ideal scenario.
What causes highway hypnosis?
A recent study highlighted how highway hypnosis differs from general distraction or fatigue. Highway hypnosis tends to be less severe than driving fatigue, which could cause you to fall asleep at the wheel. However, it can recur several times during one drive, and the driver is generally unaware that it’s happening.
Similarly, distraction refers to having your attention taken away from driving by something else, such as looking at your phone or navigation system, whereas drivers experiencing highway hypnosis are still focused on the act of driving.
Most people seem to agree that the major contributing factor is monotony. If you have to drive for miles along a straight road, with only the trees on either side for company, it’s easy to see how you might zone out for a while. Driving at night, with the regular, rhythmic passing of the streetlights, can also be a risk factor, as can traveling through long tunnels.
You may also be at greater risk of highway hypnosis if you’re driving a route that you know really well. A study from 2004 provided some evidence to support an old hypothesis that alertness decreases when your environment is unchanging. The brain essentially stops relying entirely on visual information it’s receiving from the retina, switching instead to internal predictions of what the environment looks like (extra-retinal feedback).
And, although highway hypnosis is different from true fatigue, it’s not going to help matters if you’re sleep-deprived when you get behind the wheel.
How to beat highway hypnosis
The best thing to do if you recognize the signs of highway hypnosis is to take a break. And by that, we mean actually getting out of the car and moving around a bit. A caffeinated drink or a snack could also be a good way of perking yourself back up.
While driving, there are some other things you can try to do to break up the monotony. If you have a passenger with you, now’s a great time for a deep and meaningful conversation, or to treat them to a musical performance. If you don’t fancy serenading an empty car, you could also call someone for a chat, if you have a safe and hands-free way of doing so.
Simple things, like turning the music up or winding down a window if it gets too warm, can also help. Modern cars increasingly do more of the actual work for us, so consider switching off things like cruise control so you’re forced to pay more attention to monitoring your driving.
If there’s a long journey that you need to take regularly, you might consider switching things up by varying your route. And, of course, planning is key – getting enough sleep the night before, and factoring some rest stops into your journey, can go a long way to making sure that you reach your destination with a clear head and, most importantly, in one piece.