Highway Hypnosis

Rest AreaAt one point or another, every driver experiences the phenomenon commonly called “highway hypnosis”. It’s the rhythmical lull caused by the constant sound of the engine and the tires on the road, combined with consistent picture out the front window, passing dashed white lines. Highway hypnosis describes the entrancing effect of being awake (and driving), but mentally “zoned out”. Your mind wanders. You get sleepy. You might drive 20 or more miles of roadway without being aware of it. It’s numbing to the mind. And it can be very dangerous.

Driving in “Automatic” Mode While Your Brain Takes a Hike

Much of what you do in the car is strictly habit. Do you deliberately put your seatbelt on? Or does it just kind of “happen”. Likewise, do you have to think to use your turn signals? Or is it just an unconscious habit? How many times have you driven to work (or home) but don’t remember making each turn of the trip? Oftentimes your brain gets bored with the routine, so it switches your body into “automatic” mode and daydreams about other things while you drive. If you’re not careful, being absent-minded can get you (or someone else) injured or killed.

Driving While Sleep Deprived or Stressed

Stress and sleep deprivation contribute to overall fatigue. They wear you down. When you’re fatigued, your brain tries to find ways to recover. The usual solution is sleep. If you’re behind the wheel and either absent-minded or experiencing highway hypnosis, it’s the perfect storm which can lead you to nod off. Needless to say, falling asleep behind the wheel doesn’t end well.

Other Factors Contributing to Road Fatigue

Blurry WindshieldAs you can imagine, driving at night is a major contributor to road fatigue. When it’s dark outside, it’s natural to want to sleep. Likewise, driving into the sun or towards oncoming headlights can have the same effect. If you’re squinting, your eyes are already partially closed. Your body naturally wants to close them the rest of the way if you’re fatigued enough. In other words, eye strain contributes to your road fatigue and impacts your attention span while driving.

In a similar way, you’ll suffer from eye strain when driving in rain, snow, fog, or with a dirty windshield. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to have good windshield wipers and a clean windshield when you drive. The less strain you put on your eyes, the less road fatigue you’ll experience.

Driving on a full stomach or driving when you’re not feeling well are other contributing factors. Driving while ill is distracting and exhausting. Likewise, driving after a heavy meal adds to your tiredness because it takes a lot of energy to digest food. Your body would prefer to rest and relax in either case, rather than focus on driving a car. By itself, driving on a full belly isn’t a concern. But when combined with other road fatigue factors, beware of the compounding effect. Medical conditions such as sleep apnea also contribute to overall fatigue and can impair your driving. Obviously, so does alcohol consumption.

How to Battle and Offset Road Fatigue

Asleep at the WheelThe obvious answer to offsetting road fatigue is to get rest. When that’s not feasible or practical, there are a few other things to try.

  • In cold weather, roll down your window. In hot weather, use your air conditioner to keep the car cool. Think of “cold” as “refreshing” versus “hot” as fatiguing.
  • Stop at a rest stop or parking lot and walk around your car a few times to get the blood pumping.
  • Splash your face with cold water. You can always get a cup of ice water at a local convenience store or fast food restaurant.
  • Play the radio and sing along. It doesn’t matter if you can carry a tune or not. The idea is to get your brain engaging your body, rather than falling asleep.
  • Make a hands-free call to someone and talk to them as if they’re a passenger in the front seat. Again, engage your mind rather than lull it to sleep.
  • The very best thing you can do is to get out of traffic, find a safe spot to rest, and get a few “z’s”. Live to drive another day.

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