N.Y. train wreck could be case of highway hypnosis

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NEW YORK (AP) — It’s sometimes called highway hypnosis or white-line fever, and it’s familiar to anyone who has driven long distances along a monotonous route.

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?

A man driving a Metro-North Railroad commuter train that went off the rails Sunday in New York, killing four passengers, experienced a momentary loss of awareness as he zoomed down the tracks, 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 the 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 it, 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, 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 National Transportation Safety Board, 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 the engineer, William 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 effect 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.

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