Anyone who’s ever had a long commute to work knows the feeling of driving along the highway while drifting into your own thoughts. You’re contemplating life and what’s been troubling you lately, thinking of god knows what. Then, suddenly, you’ve arrived at your destination with no recollection of how you got there.
This phenomenon is colloquially known as White Line Fever, or otherwise, Highway Hypnosis, first coined in 1963 by G. W. Wiliams (Williams, 1963). It is described as a mental state in which a person can drive an automobile over great distances and for a long duration while having no conscious control over their actions. During this state, they respond appropriately to external events in a safe manner, albeit with no recollection of the action (Weiten, n.d.).
Weiten describes the driver’s conscious state as being apparently fully focussed elsewhere, while seemingly still processing the information needed to drive and respond appropriately and safely. The mechanisms behind how a person can enter a state in which their subconscious is performing actions that are entirely appropriate for the situation are poorly understood. It is believed that it is a manifestation of the common process of automaticity, which describes the minds ability to divide the conscious and subconscious into two distinct and independent streams, allowing for independent processing of each function.
Automaticity is a mental process that is designed to allow the conscious mind to focus on things without needing to process low-level details, in a sense, muscle memory. It is this process that allows a guitarist to seamlessly play a chord without needing to think of where to put each finger consciously, they simply think of the “G” chord, and their fingers automatically do it. Automaticity is achieved through repetition and practice of a particular task, in this case, many hours behind the wheel of a car.
Highway fever is an incredible example of the human mind ability to perform exceptionally complex tasks effortlessly. The brain can to take in and process a massive amount of information about the cars speed, direction, and relationship between other vehicles on the road, their positions, and direction. The brain then analyses this mass of variables to determine the best action, and then carries it out, all while continuing to occupy the conscious mind with “trivial” matters, such as how we made a mistake at work today. As Automaticity is founded on habit and practice, this makes it very unlikely that the subconscious mind will be able to comprehend and act appropriately to an adverse situation the individual has not encountered before.
The concerning matter is what the brain will do in the event of something unexpected, or an emergency response requiring immediate conscious input from the driver. Bargh tells us that the driver may not be aware of the subconscious process occurring (Bargh, 1994), and that the driver may, in fact, be entirely unaware they are still operating a vehicle.
Given the high rate of speed of most vehicles on a highway, suddenly jolting the conscious mind back into “reality” will not leave the person’s conscious mind enough time to gather appropriate information, process it and determine the best course of action to prevent an accident. Bargh also describes that automaticity requires a relatively low level of mental resources and cognitive load (Bargh, 1994), leaving little mental capacity for the processing of adverse events.
There have been many reports over the years where highway fever has been attributed as the primary cause of an accident. Indeed there have been many cases where truck drivers, in particular, have collided with another vehicle, only to recall later that they either never saw the other vehicle, or that it simply “happened” without warning. These instances describe the dangers of highway fever and how it can have devastating consequences.
The advent of cruise control and the ever-increasing driving aids has decreased the cognitive load required to drive a motor vehicle, making instances of highway fever more likely. To combat this, companies like Tesla have implemented check and control systems to ensure a driver is still aware and able to take control in the event of an adverse event or other emergency. In the case of Tesla vehicles, the car will constantly nag the driver to hold the wheel, giving the system an indication you are still able and willing to take control of the vehicle. Failing to do so will result in the vehicle discontinuing the driver’s ability to use the Autopilot function, and the system bringing the vehicle to a stop. You can read more about Tesla’s autopilot and driver inaction here.
Highway fever is ultimately something that we all experience at some time or another. While we don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms behind it, or why it happens, it is certainly a measurable physical phenomenon with real world benefits, and devastating consequences.
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