The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

AP story section

December 6, 2013

NY train wreck could be case of highway hypnosis

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.

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