The transportation industry has long been plagued by a condition known as highway hypnosis or white-line fever. Some are claiming the condition was responsible for the commuter train crash on the Metro-North Railroad in New York earlier this month. The condition involves a driver, or in this case a train engineer, who is lulled into a semi-trance state by the monotonous nature of the journey. Anyone who has driven long distances can recognize the hypnotic quality of mile after mile of basically unchanging scenery. The condition often leaves the vehicle operator with little to no memory of portions, sometimes large portions, of the journey.
A union representative for the engineer described the man as suffering a “nod,” or a “daze,” that caused him to enter a sharp turn at a high rate of speed. The speed limit at this turn is 30 miles per hour. The train was traveling at 82 mph when it entered the turn. The engineer applied the brakes at that point, but it was not enough to prevent the passenger train from flying off the tracks. Four passengers were killed in the crash.
Highway hypnosis was not necessarily the cause of the train wreck. Sleep experts reported that what was called a “daze” could actually have been the result of the engineer dozing off momentarily. The phenomenon known as “micro-sleep” is also typified by a few moments of unawareness. People are often not aware that they have fallen asleep during these micro-sleep periods.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. It has ruled out alcohol as a potential cause and is currently awaiting the results of drug tests.
Source: ABC News, “NY Train Wreck Could Be Case of Highway Hypnosis,” by Jennifer Peltz and Sam Hananel, 4 December 2013