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What Is Highway Hypnosis?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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Highway hypnosis is a condition that occurs when a driver is overly tired and attempting to continue on without rest. Called white line fever by long-haul truckers, the act of staring at white lines in an effort to stay in a specific lane occasionally hypnotizes a driver, creating a dangerous condition. Many law enforcement agencies are beginning to treat highway hypnosis cases in the same manner they treat drunk driving, issuing citations and fines. By driving while extremely tired, a driver suffering from this condition is likely to miss warning signs that could prevent accidents, such as stop signs, traffic lights and railroad crossing signals.

Typically occurring at night, highway hypnosis happens when the headlights illuminate the lines much like a hypnotist uses lights to enhance the flash of a swinging watch to induce hypnosis. As a driver begins to tire, the reflexes become slower, so the driver often focuses on the lines to avoid crossing into another lane of traffic. The intense focusing upon the flashing lines soon renders the driver under highway hypnosis. The same actions can also take effect in daylight conditions, but less frequently.

Effects of this condition range from drunken-like driving mannerisms, to a driver reaching a destination without remembering how he got there, to an accident scene. In an effort to dissuade truck drivers from driving when overly tired, many trucking companies have installed global positioning systems (GPS) in the fleet trucks. This enables a company to visually track a driver's daily miles, rest breaks and meal breaks. It also exposes any erratic driving actions, such as going from fast to slow speed, which is common in highway hypnosis.

While the trucking industry has log books and the GPS readings to detect cases of actual or potential highway hypnosis, the problem is on the rise with passenger car drivers. Police often receive tips from cell phone users reporting drunk driving mannerisms from drivers of vehicles on the roadway; the police are then able to intercept the driver to find that he or she is simply sleepy, not intoxicated. The problem with this type of highway hypnosis patrolling is that it is a reactive instead of a proactive attempt at solving the problem. Drivers attempting to drive to work after a sleepless night or home from an extended trip and a myriad of other reasons create many roads filled with tired and occasionally hypnotized drivers.

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Discussion Comments
By parkthekarma — On Jul 04, 2011

@KaBoom - I agree that limiting drive time is just not possible for the average driver. How would they know, without subjecting us all to expensive, complicated, and intrusive monitoring or some kind of logbook system like a long-distance trucker? It just would not work for passenger cars.

I say, punish the behavior when appropriate. Rather than monitor how tired someone is, which you really cannot do, just take appropriate action if it is determined that someone was driving tired and caused an accident.

By BigManCar — On Jul 04, 2011

@TheGraham - You are absolutely right about the big meals. Those can be a killer (hopefully not literally in this case). This is especially true if you have any kind of blood sugar issues like hypoglycemia or diabetes. Enough carbohydrates make for nap time, ready or not.

By emtbasic — On Jul 03, 2011

I can relate to a lot of you guys. I have had this happen to me before, and I must admit I didn't always make the best choices about it.

I used to date a girl who lived about 50 miles away, and it was not exactly unheard of for me to be careening down the freeway headed home in the early morning hours with the window open in the Winter time, singing at the top of my lungs along with the blaring radio.

Not smart. Now I make sure I have enough time and rest to make the trip, or I wait.

By TheGraham — On Jul 03, 2011

@Starjo - Good advice about keeping the air conditioning on cold or keeping a window open.

Occasionally my brother will take an hour-long trip in the evenings. He's generally a night owl type, and has no trouble staying up late, but generally he visits this larger town to blow off steam and relax, so it's usually after a long day at work.

Anyway, between being tired from work already and the high-carbohydrate meals he generally has at the local Denny's right before driving home, he often gets very sleepy during the trip back.

To combat that sleepiness, he does kind of what you recommend -- he opens the window and lets cold air in. He also takes a step further, though, and sticks his hand out the window. Usually if the cool air to breathe doesn't help, the sensation of having his hand hit by the cold air keeps him focused.

I still don't think it's a good habit to be into, driving when sleepy, but at least he has a strategy and is aware of the risks of driving sleepy.

By StarJo — On Jul 03, 2011

@lighth0se33 - I often take long driving trips, and I have found a few ways to avoid highway hypnosis. Not all of these will work for all people, but all of them are worth a try to find the one that does work for you.

It helps to keep the radio on loud. Don’t listen to a CD that you know by heart. Put in something different from your usual music. If you like rap, then try listening to jazz instead. Familiar music can act as a lullaby.

Keep the air conditioning cold or a window down if it is cool outside. This will keep you refreshed and alert. Try it in short blasts if you find yourself nodding off anyway.

Stop for coffee. I know it might keep you awake once you get home, but it’s worth it to stay alive.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 02, 2011

I have to work from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and for me, there is no getting around driving at night. I live in a rural area, and my job is 45 minutes away. Most of the drive involves the highway.

Does anyone have any tips for avoiding highway hypnosis? Pulling over at a rest stop is not an option for me, because I have a babysitter and a small child waiting for me at home.

By SZapper — On Jul 01, 2011

Highway hypnosis is really scary. I've had the experience of driving somewhere when I was tired and getting there with no memory of doing the actual driving! After that happened I started trying to avoid driving while tired as much as I can.

By KaBoom — On Jul 01, 2011

@Greenweaver - Limiting night time driving for everyone is a pretty ridiculous idea. A lot of people work jobs with night time hours and have to drive at night. There are a lot of places with no public transportation so there isn't any other option except to drive.

In my opinion we could help solve this problem by giving more people the option to use public transportation. I'm sure a lot of more people would use public transporatation if they had access to it!

By GreenWeaver — On Jun 30, 2011

@Latte31 - I agree with you. It makes a lot more sense to impose restrictions on their driving, and maybe limit night time driving altogether. I know the trucking industry won’t be happy because they will have to hire more truck drivers if a law like this would ever take effect because these drivers would not be able to be as productive as they once were.

The thing is that a lot of people are not even aware of this problem and it needs to get more attention because it as dangerous as drunk driving.

By latte31 — On Jun 29, 2011

@Poppyseed -I was thinking the same thing, but I also think that lawmakers would probably impose a driving limit on the drivers so that they would be forced to rest before they continue on. This is similar to airline pilots.

They are often tired but they do have flying restrictions as well as a copilot in case they get tired on a flight. I do feel that trucking companies should do the same and have a restriction based on the number of miles that the truck driver can drive, or have a second truck driver take over.

This is really the only way that they can enforce a restriction like this because drowsy driving not only poses a danger to the driver, but it also endangers those commuters around him and these trucks can do a lot more damage than a single car or SUV can.

By poppyseed — On Jun 28, 2011

Definitely, driving while tired is extremely dangerous. I would venture to say that most of those who do drive have experienced it and know firsthand how dangerous it is. I hope that most of us also act responsibly and pull over somewhere when this happens.

I’m curious, though, if lawmakers are trying to make highway hypnotism an offense that is punishable in the same way that a drunk driving is, how exactly are they going to prove it.

What I mean to say is that you can run a breathalyzer on a drunk driver and have definitive proof that they are indeed legally drunk. But, as far as I know, there is no way to prove that someone is too tired to drive.

I’m thinking that the whole ‘innocent until proven guilty’ statute is going to keep this from happening.

By Agni3 — On Jun 28, 2011

My father in law was a truck driver when my husband was a young boy, and they would often go out on the road together when my hubby was out of school.

Now, I’m guessing that he was about nine or ten when these excursions began. Their regular route would include winding mountain hills and backwoods mountain passes.

Imagine my surprise when my husband confided in me that he often took the wheel when his dad started to feel too tired to drive.

Rather than wasting the time to stop early, my father in law actually gave his pre-teen son the wheel in these backwoods roads where passing a cop was about as common as passing Wonder Woman.

I’m not sure which was more dangerous, because I know how my husband drives today and he’s 31.

By tlcJPC — On Jun 27, 2011

Wow, I’ve got to say that I think this has happened to me before, but I didn’t realize it until now.

When I was in college I had a six hour drive home, and I was not exactly big on getting rested before I left for the long haul. I definitely overused those lines to keep from going over the edge of the road or swerving into other lanes of traffic. I wasn’t exactly conscientious over speed or the volume of the radio either.

But, I know that there were many times I’d check the clock and seemingly five minutes later check it again and would have lost an hour or more. It was definitely a case of drowsy driving.

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