The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

National News

December 6, 2013

NY train wreck could be case of highway hypnosis

(Continued)

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 Tuesday with the engineer, who has been suspended without pay. Interviews with the train’s other crew members continued. 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.

Many sleep experts see highway hypnosis as micro-sleep, a phenomenon often attributed to fatigue or sleep deprivation.

Most people don’t even realize when they’ve been micro-sleeping — for example, “resting their eyes” for a few seconds, said Dr. James Maas, a sleep expert and retired Cornell University psychology professor.

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