Researchers from the Hyundai-Kia Technical Center at the University of Michigan have launched a new study to address the dangers of “highway hypnosis”, and to develop systems designed to prevent it. First described as “road hypnotism”, highway hypnosis refers to a driver’s trance-like mental state that can develop after traveling for an extended period of time on the same road. “About an hour into a long drive, typically on a highway with a straightaway, you start zoning out and your reaction time slows down,” says Joshua Maxwell, ergonomics engineer at the Hyundai-Kia Tech Center. “Your brain goes into an auto-pilot.”
Highway hypnosis, also known as white line fever, was first introduced in an article published in 1921 discussing the change in mental state that occurs while driving and gazing at a fixed point, such as the lane lines of a highway, creating a disconnect between a driver’s conscious and subconscious minds. In this altered state, a driver’s conscious mind is entirely distracted, leaving only the subconscious to handle the task of driving, making it possible to drive several miles with little or no recollection of ever doing so. A study conducted in 1929 further explored the phenomenon, suggesting that it was entirely possible for a driver to fall asleep at the wheel, even with eyes open and facing the road.
In the study, drivers’ brain activity will be monitored by electroencephalograph (EEG) sensors in order to determine the moment when highway hypnosis first sets in. At present, little research has been done to examine brain function in relation to driver distraction; most indicators are external signifiers. “Current methods of detecting driver drowsiness are noting changes in head position and eyelid activity, both of which require a longer time to determine potential danger,” says Maxwell. By targeting brain activity, researchers are hoping to pinpoint developing dangers early enough to deploy effective prevention, though they admit uncertainty about the method by which to warn drivers. “It could be visual, audio, or haptic. It might be the coffee cup icon, which is familiar to most people.”
In 2011, 3,331 people were killed and more than 387,000 injured in accidents related to driver distraction, according to statistics gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Cell phone usage captures much of the attention in the name of distraction prevention, though there are a number of other dangers, including highway hypnosis. Any activity, or mental state, that pulls a driver’s attention away from the road is cause for serious concern, though mental distractions are much more difficult to identify and prevent when compared to texting and talking on a cell phone.
On long drives, it is essential to keep your mind focused on the road ahead. To prevent the possibility of highway hypnosis, take regular breaks, never driving for several hours in a row. Getting a full night’s rest will also help prevent drowsiness and absentmindedness that can cause you to list off the road or into oncoming lanes. It is also helpful to bring bottled water and portable snack, as proper hydration and nutrition provides the fuel needed to stay sharp and attentive. If you find yourself becoming overly distracted or drowsy, exit the highway immediately and get your needed rest before returning to the road.