Highway Hypnosis & Velocitation

Highway Hypnosis & Velocitation: Know The Dangers & Prevention Routines

Updated Dec. 14, 2020

Highway hypnosis is a dangerous trance-like state, during which a driver may travel a short distance – or many miles – without having any recollection of the experience. The concept of highway hypnosis was introduced in 1921 when it was first described as “road hypnotism” by a research team investigating motorists who appeared to “sleep” with their eyes open, yet still maintain control of their vehicles. A great deal more research on highway hypnosis has been conducted since that time. We now understand it to pose a considerable risk to road user safety, particularly as there are so many drowsy drivers on the road.

A driver’s chances of being involved in an accident or collision are significantly greater when they are experiencing highway hypnosis. In this state, it is impossible to be fully focused and engaged with the task of driving. With your conscious mind elsewhere, any hazardous situations or changes to the driving environment which occur are likely to go unnoticed.

What causes highway hypnosis?

Highway hypnosis can set in during long, boring or familiar journeys, or while driving on an especially monotonous stretch of road. The driver effectively becomes “hypnotized” by the sound of the engine and the lane-divider markings as they pass. Driving while affected by highway hypnosis is somewhat like driving on “autopilot”. The condition of the driver and the difficulty of the driving task also play a part in the development of highway hypnosis.

Highway hypnosis may occur when:

  • Traveling long distances
  • Driving on straight, wide roadways with little distracting scenery
  • Driving on a familiar route
  • On a monotonous drive, where few changes in speed, stops or turns are required
  • A driver is suffering from fatigue

The difference between highway hypnosis and fatigue

Highway hypnosis and fatigued driving are not the same thing. Fatigue describes the mental and/or physical “tiredness” that occurs as a result of prolonged or strenuous activity. A fatigued person may experience dulled senses and reflexes, trouble processing complex information, extended reaction time, physical discomfort and general drowsiness. Driving while fatigued is extremely dangerous and often proves to be a deadly mistake.

Highway hypnosis can be caused, or partially caused by fatigue. However, it can also occur in perfectly well-rested and alert drivers, simply because the driving environment is monotonous. Highway hypnosis is less dangerous when it happens in this latter context, as the driver does not truly “zone out” but rather performs all necessary driving tasks automatically. The ability to perform a familiar action without conscious thought or awareness is known as “automaticity” and is not essentially a bad thing. Although, it can increase risk when the action in question is operating a motor vehicle, as the driver may not respond well if unexpected dangers or sudden changes to the familiar driving task occur. Though, it is nowhere near as hazardous as fatigue-induced highway hypnosis.

Fatigue-induced highway hypnosis is not true automaticity. The trance-like state a fatigued driver experiences is really just a loss of awareness and the last step before sleep takes over. In this context, highway hypnosis may stop you from:

  • Seeing and interpreting road signs and other traffic control devices
  • Spotting and avoiding hazards
  • Identifying and adapting to changes in the roadway environment
  • Recognizing turns you need to take in time to maneuver
  • Maintaining a safe speed
  • Keeping a safe buffer of space around your vehicle

If left unchecked, highway hypnosis will quickly cause a fatigued driver to become drowsy and fall asleep at the wheel.

Avoiding highway hypnosis

If you are suffering with drowsiness while driving on a long, uninterrupted stretch of highway or in another situation where highway hypnosis may strike, pay careful attention to your physical condition and state of mind. These tips will help you to avoid falling victim to highway hypnosis:

  1. 1

    If possible, avoid driving at night or for more than 8 hours each day.

  2. 2

    Purposefully keep your eyes moving as you scan the roadway ahead. Do not let them settle on one spot for too long.

  3. 3

    Check your rear-view and side-view mirrors frequently.

  4. 4

    Keep the temperature in the car to a minimum, as this should help you to remain alert.

  5. 5

    Make a point of looking at all road signs, pavement markings, traffic signals and vehicles within your view – if it is safe to do so.

  6. 6

    Check your speedometer frequently. Highway hypnosis can cause drivers to increase their speed beyond a safe threshold without realizing it.

What is velocitation?

Velocitation is a psychological phenomenon brought on by monotonous, extended periods of high-speed driving. When velocitation occurs, a driver loses touch with how fast they are traveling and often believes they are moving slower than they truly are. As both highway hypnosis and velocitation can occur in similar driving environments, drivers are often affected by both phenomena at the same time.

The dangers of velocitation

Velocitation is especially hazardous when it occurs alongside highway hypnosis, as the driver will be traveling faster than they believe they are while not being consciously engaged with the act of driving or what is going on around them in the roadway environment.

When a driver is affected by velocitation their perception of speed is warped. They will not be aware of how fast they are traveling and may gradually speed up without realizing or fail to slow down sufficiently when the driving environment changes. For instance, velocitation may cause a driver to merge onto an expressway exit ramp at an unsafe speed and lose control or collide with other vehicles.

Avoiding velocitation

The best way to avoid velocitation – like highway hypnosis – is to remain alert, monitor the environment around your vehicle and stay focused on the task of driving. Drivers are particularly susceptible to velocitation on long, monotonous journeys and while suffering from drowsiness. To maintain a safe speed:

  • Take regular breaks on long journeys.
  • Keep your eyes moving over the roadway ahead to avoid losing focus.
  • Avoid staring off into the distance while in an open environment. Looking at distant objects can fool you into thinking you are traveling slower than you truly are.
  • Check your speedometer regularly.

If regular glances at your speedometer show that you are often driving faster than you intend to, it is time to take a break. Your inability to perceive speed accurately could be worsened by drowsiness. Find the nearest safe spot to rest or take a nap, before continuing your journey.

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