December 5, 2013

Engineer’s fatal ‘nod’ raises questions about ‘highway hypnosis’

The train wreck shows the danger of what some experts call micro-sleeping.

By Jim Fitzgerald And Jennifer Peltz
The Associated Press

YONKERS, N.Y. — It's sometimes called "highway hypnosis" or "white-line fever," and it's familiar to anyone who has ever driven long distances along a monotonous route.

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Repair work is underway at the site of a train derailment in the Bronx borough of New York, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. The National Transportation Safety Board says right now, it doesn’t know whether faulty brakes or human error caused Sunday’s derailment of a New York City train that killed four people and injured more than 60. But NTSB member Earl Weener says information from the train’s two data recorders shows the train was going 82 mph on a turn when it should have been going no more than 30 mph.

The Associated Press

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Drivers are lulled into a semi-trance state and reach their destination with little or no memory of parts of the trip. But what if it happened to an engineer at the controls of a speeding passenger train?

The man driving the Metro-North locomotive that went off the rails this week in New York City, killing four passengers, experienced a momentary loss of awareness as he zoomed down the rails, according to his lawyer and union representative, who called the episode a "nod," a "daze" or highway hypnosis.

Their accounts raised questions about just how widespread the problem is in the transportation industry and what can be done to combat it.

At the time of Sunday's crash, the train was going 82 mph into a sharp turn where the speed limit drops to 30 mph. That's when the engineer says he snapped out of it and hit the brakes, but it was too late. The train hurtled off the tracks, leaving a chain of twisted cars just inches from a river in the Bronx.

While the term highway hypnosis has been around for decades, there's no technical definition of it and scant specific medical study of the problem, although multiple studies have found that long driving times on straight roads can cause people to lose focus.

Some experts equate highway hypnosis with a sort of autopilot state — performing a task, usually competently, without awareness of it. Sleep experts say the daze could really be a doze, especially if a driver has undiagnosed sleep problems.

Whatever it is, nearly every bus or train driver has experienced the feeling of being momentarily unaware while driving long hours, said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Hanley, who spent eight years driving a bus in New York City, recalled spending a week on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift and sometimes stopping to pick up passengers who weren't there.

"You find yourself stopping, and you open the doors, and all you see is a mailbox," he said, adding that fatigue and work-schedule changes play a role.

The NTSB, which has yet to determine the cause of the crash, concluded talking with the engineer Tuesday. Investigators continued interviewing the train's other crew members. Investigators have said Rockefeller had enough time off for a full night's rest before the crash, but they were looking at his activities in the previous days.

Highway hypnosis doesn't show up often in medical literature, but numerous researchers have looked at the affect that monotonous driving can have on alertness and reaction time.

In one early paper on the phenomenon, published in 1962, retired Rutgers University psychologist Griffith Wynne Williams wrote that the modern superhighway's smooth, uninterrupted stretches of concrete could put people in a daze.

"Driving under these conditions makes little demand on the driver's orientation to reality," he wrote. "The distracting stimuli are few."

It's the "Where did those 10 miles go?" sensation of realizing you've been driving apparently without paying attention to the road or yourself, said Stephen J. Morse, a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Many sleep experts see highway hypnosis as micro-sleep, a phenomenon often attributed to fatigue or sleep deprivation.

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