Avoid Highway Hypnosis: Tips to Stay Alert on the Road

It’s early in the morning. You wake up, shower, eat breakfast, get out of the house, walk to the car, unlock it… and the next moment, you’re already at your destination, getting down to business.

How did you get here? Whom did you see on the road? How many turns did you make? There is no answer; you simply do not remember. If this has ever happened to you, then you’ve likely been a victim of highway hypnosis.

Driving Without Attention: A Common Issue Among Drivers

Highway hypnosis, also known as driving without attention mode (DWAM), is a mental state in which a person can drive for long distances while being absolutely unaware of the surroundings and doing the driving unconsciously. Often, highway hypnosis is accompanied by a lack of sleep or tiredness.

Highway hypnosis is not the same as drowsy driving. When you’re driving without attention, you may not feel drowsy. Typically, your brain is fully functional, it’s just not focused on what you’re doing. 

It is also not the same as daydreaming, which causes a person’s contact with reality to be blurred and partially replaced by a visionary fantasy. When we’re highway hypnotized, we still perform all the needed tasks and definitely don’t experience any illusions.

Why Does This Happen?

There is no exact answer as to why highway hypnosis happens to certain people, but there are some general theories. It's more common among drivers who are fatigued, as being tired can lower brain awareness. Monotony also tends to be a contributing factor. Driving on straight, flat roads without much scenery can put you into highway hypnosis in as little as 20 minutes. When you drive on a road you're very familiar with, it's also easy for your brain to switch off, possibly due to a lack of stimulating visual feedback. 

One thing we do know for sure — highway hypnosis isn't new. In fact, it was first written about back in 1921. In 1957, engineers designed the Indiana Toll Road with curves every two miles or so, trying to solve the problem and keep drivers engaged by forcing them to manage the road curves. Apparently, it didn’t have the desired effect on highway hypnosis, proving that drivers must make a greater effort to keep themselves alert and attentive when they are behind the wheel.

The Best Way to Avoid Highway Hypnosis: Driver's Ed

A driver’s education course teaches you the rules of the road and helps you sharpen your defensive driving skills. It can also instill good driving habits that may help you avoid falling into the trap of highway hypnosis.

For example, paying close attention to road signs and continually scanning the road for potential hazards automatically creates more focus. When you actively monitor your speed and frequently check your rear-view and side mirrors, you’re also repeatedly bringing your attention back to the task at hand.

Your driver’s ed instructor may also provide other tips to help you retain your driving focus, such as:

  • Avoiding driving when you are tired

  • Taking frequent breaks when driving long distances

  • Turning your AC on or rolling down a window

  • Avoiding large, heavy meals before driving

  • Having conversations with your passengers

  • Listening to an exciting playlist

  • Taking a different route to your destination

Once you’re aware of the phenomenon of highway hypnosis, you can proactively keep an eye out for it. If you feel yourself starting to zone out, take action as soon as you can to re-focus your mind. This could be anything from stopping at the nearest gas station for a cup of coffee to simply changing the radio station. Often, a small change is enough to snap your brain out of hypnosis mode. 

Keep Yourself Safe Behind the Wheel 

DriversEd.com’s online driver’s education courses are packed with valuable information that can help keep you safe from issues such as highway hypnosis, driving anxiety, and more. Our courses are affordable and fun and the online format allows you to complete the required lessons at your own pace. Start exploring your options now!

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Updated 5/11/23