Sunday, December 22, 2013
Deadly NY Train Derailment Highlights Risk Of Highway Hypnosis
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 little medical studies 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. 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.
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.
And this stands as yet another example of how hypnotizable we all are – whether we believe it or not.