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What is Highway Hypnosis and How To Prevent It

April 12, 2024Articles

We’ve all experienced that moment when we turn into our driveway and wonder, “How did I get here?” Or we suddenly look out at the road ahead and realize that we don’t remember navigating the last several miles, even though we must have stopped at intersections and made other driving maneuvers.

What happens to a driver during these odd moments of dislocation and time loss behind the wheel? According to driving experts, this is a common phenomenon known as highway hypnosis. What causes highway hypnosis, when is it dangerous, and how should drivers prevent possible danger?

What Is White Line Fever, or Highway Hypnosis?

While many Americans haven’t heard the term “highway hypnosis,” they’ve probably heard “white line fever,” or “driving on autopilot.” These are different ways of describing the same phenomenon—driving for miles and later having no memory of what they saw or did while behind the wheel. It seems alarming, yet this all-too-common phenomenon is natural and happens to everyone. It’s actually a form of self-hypnosis that occurs to drivers when they “zone out” while behind the wheel, focusing deeply on their inward thoughts while still efficiently performing all the tasks required to navigate and drive. This is most likely to occur when a driver takes a familiar route, such as the daily drive home from work, or while on long stretches of monotonous highway. Highway hypnosis can lead to car accidents.

When driving conditions do not require vigilant attention, a portion of the brain separates itself to continue the routine tasks of driving while the remainder of the brain turns inward, focusing deeply on thoughts, problems, worries, plans, and daydreams. The next thing the driver knows, they become alert to their surroundings with a lost sense of time and don’t recall the routine driving actions they took behind the wheel to get where they are. According to traffic experts, this only becomes dangerous under specific circumstances.

Is Highway Hypnosis Dangerous?

The common phenomenon of driving on “autopilot” while deep in thought isn’t inherently dangerous, but it can become dangerous if it causes drowsiness. Just as a person’s thoughts wander as they fall first into twilight sleep and then into deep sleep, the same can occur for those experiencing highway hypnosis if they are also fatigued. While earlier research suggested that drivers have slower reaction times while driving under conditions of highway hypnosis, more current studies show conflicting results. Non-drowsy drivers have equal reaction times even when operating during a state of highway hypnosis, but when a driver begins to enter a sleepier state, their reaction times slow significantly. Because highway hypnosis is sometimes a precursor to drowsy driving, it’s best to take steps to minimize the condition once a driver becomes aware of it.

What Are the Signs of Highway Hypnosis and How Do We Prevent It?

Most drivers do not notice their state of hypnosis until they suddenly snap out of it, but there are ways to identify the onset of the condition and stop it before it fully occurs. Recognizing signs such as the following helps drivers avoid falling into highway hypnosis:


  • Wandering thoughts
  • Deep relaxation or a dazed feeling
  • Fogginess and lack of concentration
  • Frequent blinking
  • Heavy eyelids

If your state of highway hypnosis begins causing heavy eyelids or sleepiness, it’s a warning sign that you’re becoming drowsy, which is dangerous behind the wheel. If this occurs, it helps to open a window for invigorating air circulation and increased oxygen. Then turn on or change your music to something faster-paced and enlivening, or put on an interesting podcast. During long trips, take breaks every two hours and walk around to stimulate blood circulation. Drinking a cup of coffee, tea, or a caffeinated beverage is a quick fix to help avoid deep states of highway hypnosis or drowsiness behind the wheel.