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January 30, 2020

Highway Hypnosis: What is it and how to avoid it?

Red and white light trails from cars travelling along a highway at night through a forest under the stars

Have you arrived home after a drive and not remembered how you got there? Or have you ever read a page of a book and then realized that you have no idea what you just read? If so, you probably have experienced highway hypnosis, also known as white line fever. Highway hypnosis is an altered, trance-like state where you're able to drive a car, train or truck over long distances safely while your focus is on something else (1).

The idea of highway hypnosis was first written about in a 1921 article, where the author described it as 'road hypnotism', whereas the term 'highway hypnosis' was coined by G. W. Williams in 1963 (2). During this time, it was thought that highway hypnosis could be the cause of a series of unaccountable motor vehicle crashes, however, most researchers now understand that highway hypnosis and drowsy driving are two different but related phenomena.

Drowsy driving vs highway hypnosis

It was long thought that highway hypnosis actually involves sleeping while driving. In 1929 study, Sleeping with the Eyes Open by Walter Miles, it was suggested that motorists could potentially fall asleep with their eyes open and continuing to steer (3). However, as research into hypnosis has advanced it has become clear that hypnosis does not involve sleep at all, instead it's related to an increase in focus, absorption and automaticity. Automaticity is the ability to do certain things without being consciously aware of it, instead leaving it to the subconscious. Another example of automaticity it bike-riding, where initially you have to consciously think about the different actions required but after a while it becomes an automatic process. You could think of highway hypnosis as driving on autopilot, where your subconscious watching the road and looking out for danger while it drives.  

On the other hand, drowsy driving doesn't involve driving becoming an automatic process. Instead, it's simply driving while sleep-deprived and fatigued. While highway hypnosis doesn't necessarily increase the danger of driving, drowsy driving does. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving contributes to over 100,000 crashes and 6,500 deaths a year in the US (4). When driving drowsy, your reaction time is slowed and you become cognitively impaired, less aware of dangers and other cars.

Is highway hypnosis dangerous?

Although it may be scary to think about driving automatically, it might not actually be that dangerous. We do lots of things in our life automatically, mostly things we have significant experience and practice with. However, Sean Meehan, a University of Michigan kinesiology professor, argues that when we enter this mental state our reaction time is also slowed (5). He points to a 2013 train derailment where the driver described feeling like he was in a 'daze', a state-of-mind which sounds eerily similar to highway hypnosis. It's easy to understand how to being consciously aware of your surroundings, Although highway hypnosis isn't necessarily dangerous, avoiding highway hypnosis or drowsy driving is possible by following a few steps.  

How to avoid highway hypnosis?

Here are a 8 tips that can help you avoid both highway hypnosis and drowsy driving:

  1. Get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Both drowsy driving and highway hypnosis are related to relaxation and sleepiness so get more sleep!
  2. Take a break every 90 minutes or switch drivers if you're in the car with someone else.
  3. Drink coffee. Caffeine blocks receptors in your brain from uptaking a sleep chemical called Adenosine (6), helping keep you awake and alert.
  4. Take a different route. Highway hypnosis is more common when you're driving routes that you often take, so by taking different route home will force you to be consciously aware of the new roads, cars and signs.
  5. Drive during the day. Driving at night will not only make you more sleepy but can contribute to highway hypnosis. This is because the dark scenery can be a lot more monotonous and therefore easier for your brain to slip into autopilot. Driving in the day will keep you awake and more aware of the more interesting surroundings.
  6. Keep it cool. You're more awake and alert if the air inside the car is cooler, so keep the aircon on during the summer and try not to use too much of the heater during winter.
  7. Sit up straight. Good posture can help keep you more alert and prevent you from drifting off.
  8. Don't use cruise control. Cruise control can make it a lot more comfortable to drive but it can also give your conscious brain an excuse to drift off and not focus on driving.

What is hypnosis?

Simply put, hypnosis is a state of focused and relaxed attention where you become more suggestible. While hypnotized, your conscious mind takes a back seat to your subconscious mind, where your automatic behaviours and thoughts live (like driving a car). Hypnosis is known as an amplified learning state, as while under hypnosis you can learn skills directly into your subconscious, where they can become automatic. It's this process that allows hypnosis to help many health conditions including anxiety, chronic pain and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Article Sources >

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1. Weiten, Wayne. Psychology Themes and Variations (6th ed.). Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning. p. 200. ISBN 0-534-59769-6.

2. Williams, G. W. (1963). Highway hypnosis: An hypothesis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 11(3), 143–151. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207146308409239

3. "Sleeping with the Eyes Open". Scientific American. Walter Miles. Retrieved 30 Jan 2020

4. "Drowsy Driving". NHTSA. U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved 30 Jan 2020.

5. Lupkin, S. (2013). You've Probably Experienced Highway Hypnosis. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/highway-hypnosis/story?id=21098081 [Accessed 28 Jan. 2020].

6. Ribeiro, J. and Sebastião, A. (2010). Caffeine and Adenosine. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 20(s1), pp.S3-S15.

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