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What Is Highway Hypnosis and How to Avoid It

| Updated Dec 8, 2021

What is Highway Hypnosis? It's a real danger that every RVer needs to be aware of!

You're in the driver's seat on a long road trip when suddenly you realize you went way past your exit. But just a minute ago you thought you had 15 miles to go. Now you're 5 miles past it!

Turns out this concept of highway hypnosis, otherwise known as white line fever, has been known for a hundred years now. An article in 1921 described the phenomenon of driving in a trance-like state as “road hypnotism.”

It's pretty scary when you snap out of it after an extended period of time. You wonder what harm you could have caused or could have happened to you.

Did I run stop signs or red lights? Did I safely pass people? What if I had gotten into an accident?!

Let's get to the bottom of why this is such a common occurrence, even for an experienced driver. We'll also offer some easy, common-sense solutions to help you avoid road hypnosis.

Drowsy Driving vs. Highway Hypnosis

What Is Highway Hypnosis and How to Avoid It
What are the warning signs of Highway Hypnosis?

There are some clear warning signs that result from driving for a long period of time.

Feelings of being dazed, loss of concentration, slower reaction times, and wandering thoughts behind the driver's seat are tell-tale signs. Even more worrisome however is the feeling of sleepiness, with having heavy eyelids or blinking more than the regular amount.

You may connect that a lot of those symptoms cross over with brain activity of those who engage in drunk driving. Drowsy drivers who cause a car crash are just as liable for legal action in the United States as those under the influence.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving results in 100,000 crashes and 6,500 deaths a year.

The scary thing is that only afterward do you realize you experienced highway hypnosis. However, highway hypnosis should not be confused with falling asleep at the wheel.

While there is some overlap between drowsy driving and hypnosis, hypnosis is far safer. If a motor vehicle hits the brakes in front of you, you are likely to be snapped out of your funk and stop in time.

The State of Highway Hypnosis

What Is Highway Hypnosis and How to Avoid It
Lack of eye movement.

What is Highway Hypnosis? It falls more under the category of being a distracted driver than a drowsy driver. Typically still wide awake, the subconscious mind takes over in a hypnotic state, still steering properly with the driver's eyes open.

Those eyes may be open, but it's the lack of eye movement that causes the brain to shift focus off the road. According to this 2004 research, staring at the same road for a long time can lead the brain to not depend so much on the visual. Instead, the brain paints a mental picture of the road ahead, then pays less attention to what the eyes see.

This is why driving for long stretches on straight roads can easily lend to automatic driving. Minutes of your drive can become seconds as brain alertness declines. Awareness of other drivers falls away and our second nature kicks in to drive steadily and between the white lines.

Attention can also be diverted by thoughts instead of the road, such as worrying about boondocking sites shutting down.

It's clear to see the potential dangers in not taking this phenomenon seriously.

Causes of Highway Hypnosis

What Is Highway Hypnosis and How to Avoid It
Is it a boring drive?

Let's be real here. A long trip on a monotonous road can be a boring drive.

A monotonous drive being one of the causes of highway hypnosis is even supported by science in this 2003 study. Using a driving simulator, participants were observed driving on two different kinds of simulated roads.

The first road observed was one with only one kind of scenery, surrounded by pine trees spaced out evenly across the entire 40-minute drive. The other road option had a diverse display of views to take in, such as road signs, people, and farms.

The research showed that the monotony of the road created driver fatigue. The ones seeing different views were stimulating different parts of the brain.

Another interesting finding in the study showed that this fatigue kicked in at around 20 minutes of driving time. This means highway hypnosis isn't reserved only for drivers logging long hours behind the wheel. It can happen driving short distances as well.

How To Prevent Highway Hypnosis

What Is Highway Hypnosis and How to Avoid It

If you're prone to entering a trance from monotony, the answer is to take measures to increase your brain alertness.

Frequent Breaks

So you have trouble not entering this mental state, take frequent breaks. Think of it like reading a book too long and eventually losing focus on the words on the page.

Only with a book, you can always read the page again. The stakes are a lot higher when a car accident can occur.

Get Out and Move Around

When you do stop, ideally every one to two hours, get out and move around. Blood flow can keep your energy up enough to focus efficiently. And if you are feeling that creeping drowsiness take hold, take a nap.

Interact with Other Stimuli (Safely)

Since the view of open highways aren't always visually stimulating, you can activate your brain in other ways. Listen to loud music, talk to your passenger or even talk to yourself!

Turn Off Cruise Control

You can also turn off cruise control so you can concentrate on that, keeping your mind on something so it doesn't drift.

Other common advice includes positioning your seat so you have good posture. Roll down the window and let the air hit your face.

Stay Alert!

Remember that while highway hypnosis is a higher risk, it also illustrates an important function of our brain. The phrase “it's like riding a bike” exists because our brain can remember repetitive activities and stop actively thinking about how to do them.

All you need to know is to take these proper steps and stay safe, especially if you're planning a very long trip!

Have you had experience with highway hypnosis? How do you deal with it? Let us know in the comments!

Mike Wendland

Published on 2021-11-26

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

5 Responses to “What Is Highway Hypnosis and How to Avoid It”

November 27, 2021at2:47 pm, Becky Clark said:

This is the most valuable article ever in RVLifestyle.


November 26, 2021at1:48 pm, Gene Brown said:

Many years ago I used to drive long hours and many miles at a stretch alone in my motorhome. I was traveling the same roads every month or so. I was so used to the roads and the route that I would go into a trance. On one occurrence I was traveling from my home near Traverse City, Mi to my overnight stop near Charleston, WV. Mentally I would drive down US 27 to I94 to US23 to Columbus, Oh and turn left on I70 and then turn right on I77. I went into such a hypnotic state I totally missed my tune in Columbus, Oh and did not realize it until I was in Cincinnati, Oh. When I realized what I had done, I was really scared and pulled off the road and sat in a parking lot and walked around until I was fully awake. After that I started practicing all the tips you suggest in your article. I hope all people that drive long distances like I did read and practice your suggestions. I am back to driving a motorhome again and practice the rule of driving less than 300 miles a day and get off the road by 3:30. Thanks for the great advice.


November 26, 2021at1:41 pm, Ron Seher said:

I’ve had issues with this for years. I’m keenly aware of it and when it’s happening. Generally, mid afternoon, my body goes into like a trance while I’m driving. I’m fighting it by looking around; sitting up straight and hugging the wheel to get the blood flowing in my back. I don’t dare relax my eyes. I’m fighting to stay alert. If there was a place to pull off I’d do it. I’ve found slowly eating M&M Dark Chocolate peanuts, one at a time, has helped and/or drinking a Power Aid. After a long while my alertness returns and I’m fine. During this feeling, it’s like my body saying, “OK I’m going to go off line for a little while, you’re on your own, good luck.”


November 26, 2021at11:07 am, Mary Beth Andrews said:

Books on Tape (ok – I’m old!) help us stay focused. Also, sunflower seeds in the shell work really well to keep me awake. The act of separating the seed from the shell with my tongue is just enough to prevent road monotony.


November 26, 2021at8:55 am, Frank Anthony said:

I suggest keeping your GPS volume high, the announcements will jolt you out of your stupor.
If you have a partner, discuss destination plans/activities (in-route activities as well). This effect is also a good reason to smell the roses along your journey, stop and see stuff instead of zipping by. Give your self extra travel time. What’s the hurry…


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