dissecting one of the strangest human phenomenons

Passing one’s drivers test is a hallmark of most people’s lives.  For many people, this monumental occasion officially signifies the transition from adolescence to adulthood. That singular moment represents the beginning of a new chapter of life filled with endless possibilities. Along with the opening of that chapter, we begin a relationship that becomes one of the longest-standing relationships we will ever have. This relationship is with driving.

Our relationship with driving is significant because it is one of the most time consuming activities we will do throughout the entirety of our life. According to research conducted by the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, American drivers spend more than 17,600 minutes behind the wheel each year. This number backs what we already know; driving is an essential part of life. 

In 1963, G.W. Williams, a psychology professor from Rutgers University, created a term that he believes best describes a shared experience most people have when driving called "highway hypnosis." In order to understand William's intent behind creating this term, it is first essential to examine the word "hypnosis." According to Oxford Reference, hypnosis is a "sleeplike state" in which memories are "apparently forgotten." This "sleeplike" or "trance-like state" is one of the foundational principles behind the phenomenon known as highway hypnosis.

To understand highway hypnosis, it is important to understand what does not qualify it. Highway hypnosis may have many similarities to fatigue driving, or ‘drowsy driving.’ Drowsy driving occurs when the driver is experiencing extreme fatigue which impacts their ability to focus on the task of driving. Unlike drowsy driving, when experiencing highway hypnosis, we are alert to the actions we take behind the wheel.  Given just how much time the average person spends operating a vehicle, the actions have been repeated so often that the same amount of awareness required when driving for the first time is no longer required.

When we are experiencing highway hypnosis, we become forgetful of our surroundings, such as the road we are driving on and the scenery around us. Highway hypnosis may seem inevitable; after all, the roads and routes we drive on are ingrained in our day-to-day lives. In the below sections, learn how to best identify when you are in highway hypnosis and strategies to best combat it.

How do I know when I am in a state of highway hypnosis? 

The experience of highway hypnosis is when driving becomes so automatic that you lose a sense of concentration on your surroundings. If highway hypnosis is, by definition, a state in which you become forgetful, then how am I best supposed to identify when I am experiencing it?

One warning sign of highway hypnosis is in the route we are driving. According to a 2003 study, highway hypnosis can happen within 20 minutes. Therefore, it is essential to acknowledge that the possibility of highway hypnosis increases when you are driving on a road that seems monotonous or familiar to you. Highway hypnosis may seem hard to snap out of, but you can beat it through preparation.

How can I prevent highway hypnosis?

There are many ways to avoid highway hypnosis. According to Healthline, tips to avoid highway hypnosis should all have one thing in common: increasing your level of alertness. A few of these tips include: taking breaks while driving, drinking caffeine, making environmental changes, and talking or singing while driving. Along with keeping your alert, all these activities will keep your brain engaged.  

While you may be driving safely, highway hypnosis could have serious consequences. Without being fully alert, you are more likely to be involved in a car accident. By constantly reminding yourself of highway hypnosis, its warning signs, and best practices to avoid it, you can be completely free of it. 

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