09/17/2016Driving on highway alert

For six decades, Americans have enjoyed the benefits of our vast and elaborate highway systems. Considered President Eisenhower’s greatest presidential achievement, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 changed the way America drove, shopped, ate, and worked forever. Roadside diners, the trucking industry, and even the fresh fruit and vegetables that we take for granted will be on our grocery store shelves would not be there without the highway system.

Another direct result of the highway expansion and interstate driving, though unintentional, is highway hypnosis. You have probably heard of highway hypnosis, and perhaps even experienced it before. For those unacquainted with highway hypnosis, sometimes called white line syndrome, it is a natural occurrence that happens to motorists after driving long hours on open roads.

Noticed almost immediately after highways--many still under construction--began to take shape, the first reported incidents of highway hypnosis occurred. As soon as routes became “second nature” to drivers who drove long stretches day after day, accidents began to crop up. By the 1950s, highway hypnosis incidents rose drastically (some say do to the rise of car comforts like air conditioning and automatic transmissions), causing a wave of accidents and the rise of the term.
Without knowing it, the same old scenery, mile after mile, lulls drivers into drowsy state, where they become, for lack of a better term, zombie drivers. In this trance-like state, drivers have reported events like driving 10 miles down a highway in a matter of seconds, with no memory of the trip, hallucinations, and feeling like you’ve never seen a stretch of road you’ve traveled on day in and day out for years.

Though it may seem innocuous, highway hypnosis has lead to accidents and even death. When drivers zone-out and, more scarily, lose time while behind the wheel, they are still driving tons of steel at tremendous speeds, and that can obviously be extremely dangerous, especially on traffic congested roads.

Highway hypnosis cannot be predicted, and once you are in it, it is hard to see it for what it is. There are habits that you can form to help you reduce the risk of highway hypnosis and become a safer driver.

Turn Up the Music

While on the road for long trips, the urge to listen to an audiobook or lengthy podcast may be strong, but be sure to mix up your playlist to include music that pumps you up and makes you pay attention. Avoid slow music or talk radio, as these tend to have the same types of drowsing effects as audiobooks do.

Get Some Air

Rolling down the windows, particularly on the highway, means paying attention, mostly because your brain will have a hard time ignoring the sounds of whipping winds. Just popping the windows down a bit every 30 minutes, you can remain alert at the wheel.
Even blasting the air conditioning can keep you awake. Fresh air or recycled air, circulating air in the car will give your brain a boost and help you focus on the road. Heat is a natural sleep-inducer, so avoid cranking up the heat on long trips.

Stop Every Hour and Move

Even if it’s just stopping at a highway off-ramp Starbucks to walk a few laps around your car, physical movement is critical to staying awake on long drives. When you pull over, be sure to do some stretches to get the blood circulating in your body before you sit back down for another driving stretch. Walking, standing, or stretching for at least 10 minutes every hour will keep your body physically primed and your mind limber for the ride ahead.

Get on the Road Early

After a good night’s rest, you are far less likely to fall asleep or go into zombie-mode at the wheel. Early morning drivers tend to be more alert (presumably from recently having a long rest), and have a reduced risk of slipping into highway hypnosis.
If you have a full day of driving ahead of you, be sure to break your day in half, and take a long nap when you stop. You will likely have the same feeling of refreshment that you did when you got up early that morning, and as long as you stop periodically, you’ll get where you’re going without succumbing to highway hypnosis.