Highway hypnosis is real and we all do it

By Rachel Lucas - Anchor / Reporter

You're driving, making all the right decisions behind the wheel, when suddenly there's a moment where you don't quite remember the chunk of driving you just did. 

You just dive into your own thoughts and go into this type of hypnosis. It's subconscious. 

We all do it. We get behind the wheel, and although we may be alert and paying attention to the road, there's suddenly that moment of “How did I get here?”

It can be a little scary not to remember seeing the road for a period of time, but experts say it’s actually quite common. It's a phenomenon called highway hypnosis. 

"It's described in many ways, mind wandering or lost in thought,” said Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Director Tom Dingus.

VTTI is the largest transportation research institute in the United States, the second largest in the world. Dingus said his team has actually studied what’s happening during those moments you don’t remember. "Everybody has experienced that phenomenon. Researchers would say that you should keep your mind on the road. We personally believe people can't really do that." 

VTTI is the largest transportation research institute in the United States, the second largest in the world. Dingus said his team has actually studied what’s happening during those moments you don’t remember.

"If you have driven for a while and you are an adult, not a teen, driving is a pretty automated task," said Tom Dingus, VTTI director. "With so much else going on in our lives — work, school, family, you name it — it's not hard to drift into your own thoughts."

Dings said that's referred to as mental workload. 

Sometimes we're doing and thinking about too much. While not remembering a chunk of your driving can be scary, Dingus said, not to worry.

“The good news is, despite the fact that you don't remember the last few minutes of your drive, as long as your eyes are on the roadway and you are not drowsy, your crash risk doesn't increase,” Dingus said.

Dingus said their research shows drivers are doing something other than driving 50 percent of the time. It's all a balancing act. He explains doing too much or even too little is when problems can happen.

“In driving, the bigger risk is underload, and that's when there is not enough to do.

This often happens on those long open highways or maybe a drive we do everyday.
It can lead to fatigue or drowsy driving which Dingus said their research shows causes between 15 and 20% of all crashes.

“As long as you are engaged in driving, actively controlling the vehicle, you are basically fine,” Dingus said. “You can think about whatever you want. But if you are looking off the road, or if you are falling asleep, the risk increases."

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