Highway Hypnosis And How To Avoid It

I’ve logged about 4,000 road miles (all solo) in the last few weeks, most of it in stunningly monotonous landscape. Fortunately, I’ve never fallen asleep at the wheel, but I’ve definitely had to pull over for a power nap on a number of occasions in the past.

What I tend to get is “highway hypnosis,” also known as driving without attention mode (DWAM), or “white line fever (I always thought that was a reference to a different kind of white line, but what do I know?).”

Highway hypnosis is a trance-like mental state brought on by the monotony of the road. In other words, you’re zoning out, and while one part of your brain is still able to operate your car, the other half is in la la land. If you’ve ever driven a stretch of highway and have no memory of it, you’ve had white line fever, baby. The important thing to take away from this is that it’s nearly as dangerous as nodding off at the wheel.

A 2009 survey conducted by the CDC cited that nearly five percent of adults had fallen asleep while driving in the past 30 days. Those are some scary statistics, as are those from a 2007 National Sleep Foundation poll that stated more than one-half of American drivers (at the time, over 100 million people) had driven while drowsy.

Thousands of people die every year due to drowsy-driving and highway hypnosis-related crashes. Some experts claim falling asleep at the wheel is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated, because you have zero reaction time. With highway hypnosis, your reaction time is so compromised, you may as well be asleep.

With Labor Day weekend looming, I thought I’d provide some tips on how to avoid highway hypnosis, and what to do if you need to pull over for some zzz’s, after the jump.Preventing highway hypnosis

  • Listen to music. When I’m getting tired, it has to be loud, fast, and I have specific songs to get me going.
  • Avoid driving at times you’d normally be asleep.
  • Avoid driving on a full stomach. I will attest to the dangers of this. Before driving back from Santa Fe a week ago, I devoured a final carne adovada plate – with posole and a sopapilla – to tide me over until my next New Mexican food fix. I regretted it the second I got behind the wheel, and no amount of caffeine could help.
  • Caffeine, caffeine, and more caffeine, but if it makes you want to jump out of your skin, know when to cut yourself off. An edgy, irritable driver is a danger as well.
  • Roll down the windows for some fresh air.
  • If you have a headset or Bluetooth, call someone to help keep you alert.
  • I play mental games, like testing my memory or recalling conversations.
  • Take regular breaks to stretch your legs.
  • Shift around while driving. I use cruise control so I can bend my right leg, and I also do one-armed stretches and neck stretches.
  • Keep your eyes moving to avoid zoning out. I also keep eye drops on my console because mine get dry on long drives.

Time out

  • If you need to pull over for a power nap at dusk or after dark, don’t choose a rest area (great for pit stops, not exactly known for savory characters, even during daylight hours). Find a well-lighted, busy location, like a gas station, fast food restaurant, or large hotel parking lot if you can swing it. Personally, I avoid stopping at deserted rest areas all together.
  • Keep your cellphone charged and at the ready in case of emergency.
  • Lock all of your doors.
  • Crack a couple of windows, but no more than a few inches.
  • If you’re in the middle of nowhere and just can’t stay awake, you may have no other option than to stop at a pull-out or side road. Just try to avoid this if at all possible and drive to the next exit.
  • Be honest with yourself: if you know a nap isn’t going to cut it, suck it up and get a motel room, campsite, or sleep in your car. Being behind schedule sucks, but being dead: much worse.

[Photo credits: hypnotism, Flickr user elleinad; road, Flickr user Corey Leopold; rockstar, Flickr user wstryder]

Watch this video to learn how peppermint oil and a really bad hairstyle can help keep you alert!

How To Sleep In Your Car In (Relative) Comfort

Since it’s peak camping and road tripping season and I’m in the midst of moving from Seattle to Boulder, using my car as a motel room, I decided it’s time for an update on car crashing (of the slumbering variety).

Last year, Gadling contributor and musician Elizabeth Seward provided useful tips she’s picked up during her years on the road touring. Like Elizabeth, I feel eminently qualified to discourse on this topic, but for different reasons.

In my mid-20s, I lived in my car for a summer. Not by choice – unless you take into account the fact that I chose to follow my recent ex-boyfriend, at his suggestion, to San Diego, despite my lack of a job, friends or housing. These situations seldom have a positive outcome, which is how I ended up living in my aging Volvo sedan and peeing into a Big Gulp cup at 3 a.m. – more on that in a minute.

I was in good company, however. The cul-de-sac where I parked was located just off a prime surf break, so each night the street would host a line-up of battered VW buses and surf-rack-bedecked, decrepit cars, as homeless surfers pulled in to roost.

The point of this anecdote is that I have a long, if somewhat cramped, history of sleeping in my car. It helps that I’m 5’2″, but I’ve known many men who have also resided in their automobiles (my brother once lived in his pickup for an entire semester of college). I’ve also logged a lot of zzz’s in cars because I travel a lot. I frequently road trip on assignment, but I’ve also made numerous drives to and from the West Coast to the Rockies over the years, for long-term moves and seasonal work.

For the most part, I enjoy sleeping in my car for the spirit of adventure it conjures. Sure, I own a tent, but when I’ve logged 10 hours behind the wheel and the weather is vile, I’d rather just bust out my sleeping bag, tuck a thick blanket over the console between the front seats (if the back seat and rear of my Honda CRV are loaded) and pass out.

For a more restful car-sleep, here are my non-negotiables (Elizabeth covered the need for adequate padding and a sleeping bag in her post):

LED headlamp and extra batteries
Not only is this helpful for middle-of-the-night bathroom trips if you’re in a campground, but it will also save your sanity if you like to read and/or are an insomniac (I fall into both categories). It also prevents draining your car battery by using the overhead light, and won’t attract attention should you be parked somewhere public but not necessarily legal for overnights.

Reading material
See above.

Sleep aid
I’m not advocating pill popping, but it can definitely be helpful to take something if a good night’s rest is crucial. If an iPod does it for you, use that. Drinking alcohol just means having to get up to pee more often, and a dehydrated, puffy-faced morning after.

A large cup
How do I put this delicately? Sometimes, you’re just not parked in a place where it’s feasible, as a woman, to pop a squat. I learned this while “living” in San Diego. All of the homes in the cul-de-sac had motion sensor lights and a lack of shrubbery, making bladder relief extraordinarily complicated. After complaining about my issues peeing in a spotlight, a fellow car-dweller told me, “Dude, you totally need to get a Big Gulp cup.” Dude, it totally solved the problem. Just remember to dump it down a storm drain, and not on someone’s landscaping. You’re not an animal.

A shower plan of action
Depending upon your situation, you can often shower for free at the beach (skip the soap and shampoo or ask a ranger or lifeguard if biodegradable products are okay to use), or pay at a rec center, gym or campground. I confess I’ve snuck into campgrounds before and poached a shower but I try to avoid such nefarious behavior (mainly because I’m afraid of getting caught). Tip: Baby wipes and skin-cleansing towelettes are your best friends on the road. And be sure to keep a clean bath towel in your car at all times for these situations.

Extra supply of drinking water

Do your research
If you’re somewhere urban, be sure to scope out signage so you don’t end up ticketed or towed. It’s a fairly well known fact that most Walmarts allow overnight RV parking; there’s even a locator app for it. It ain’t the Ritz, but it works in a pinch.

Lock your doors, but crack your windows
Don’t compromise your safety, but you do need fresh air.

Be sure your cellphone is charged and within reach
This is useless if you’re in an area without service (if you have an inkling that’s going to be the case, call, text, or email a family member or friend with your approximate location for the night before you get out of range). A phone can prove invaluable if you run into trouble.

[Photo credits: napper, Flickr user miss pupik; car, Flickr user russelljsmith; cup, Flickr user Bruce W Martin II]

Road trip tip: How to sleep comfortably in your car

I have slept in a car once on a road trip. When I drove from Odense, Denmark to Paris where people are smiling more than when I was there, my friend and I pulled off of the road somewhere to sleep. We could have been in France. I can’t remember. What I do remember is that it was not comfortable. We were in a Peugeot station wagon, so space wasn’t the problem, but we didn’t have enough bedding and it became light too soon. By the time I finally fell asleep, there I was waking up again.

Yesterday’s video road trip tip was about how to stay awake while driving. This one is about how to sleep comfortably. After watching this video you might think why get a hotel room when there’s a Walmart parking lot? Sleeping in a Walmark parking lot is a budget travel idea for sure. This video has demonstrations and some great ideas. The main idea is to plan to stay in your car.

Road trip tip: How to stay awake while driving

There are ways to stay awake while driving. I’ve done some of them. Coffee is one. Chewing gum is another. This video explains why and how those two methods work, plus offers other suggestions.

At the end there’s a statistic that gives one pause. Falling asleep at the wheel is not uncommon. It doesn’t hurt to have a few tricks for a road trip, but also is a reminder that pulling over to take a nap is not the worst option. In that case, it seems that being parked at a rest stop would feel more restful than being parked at a fast food or gas station parking lot. Consider that Virginia.

If you do stop at a rest stop to take a nap, make sure you are alert before you take off otherwise you might forget something.

Driving on ice and tips on how not to wreck

A few nights ago, I drove one of my daughter’s friends home after a day of cookie baking and watching a movie. It had started to sleet in Columbus before we headed out. We didn’t venture far onto I-71 South when I started to think, big mistake. There were flashing lights on both I-71 and I-70 from car wrecks in each direction.

When I pulled off on our exit ramp and onto the road, there were emergency vehicles and personnel attending to another wreck on the overpass, just a few feet from where I was maneuvering our car. Down the street I could see more flashing lights. A policeman motioned for me to roll down my window. “Be careful,” he said. “Go slow. There are a lot of wrecks out here.”

His words weren’t necessary, but calming somehow. He sounded like a deeper voiced version of my mother. With my children bundled in the backseat and my daughter’s friend in the passenger seat, I wasn’t in a hurry. Adding to the mayhem was not on my agenda.

Despite my careful efforts, I slid all the way across another overpass, although, I didn’t skid. I could feel that the tires weren’t gripping the road at all. “Shit,” I said under my breath, proud that I didn’t say worse.

On the way home, we skidded over another overpass, this time right between a car wreck, seconds after the two cars collided to our left and another car skidded to our right.

“You’re doing fine, Mom,” my daughter said from the backseat, as I said, “Oh, oh, oh, oh,” and tried not to flinch us into our own wreck.

After deciding to avoid the highway and travel the side streets, figuring that if anyone hit us, at least it would be at a slower speed, I took the highway the last mile and a half. It was a mistake. Cars fly on the highway in Ohio in all kinds of weather. It’s mind boggling. Really. We saw one car on the opposite side off the highway slide off the road and head down the embankment. Luckily, it stopped and didn’t flip.

Tonight, it was the same type of weather, although before it became too bad, we were home. With driving conditions treacherous, here are some tips for driving when the roads are slick. They worked for me. I was paying attention and followed them for a change.

Here is what helped me avoid having a wreck:

  • I kept a very large distance between my car and any car in front–at least triple what I normally do. When the wreck happened to my left, this helped me reach a slower speed so I could pass by.
  • Don’t break if you start to feel like you are beginning to hydroplane. Keep calm and keep the wheel straight and steady. I was hydroplaning past that wreck, but kept going.
  • I started to slow down way before I reached an intersection in order to make sure I could stop, almost without braking. To brake, I tapped on them gently several times to avoid any strong movement.
  • The whole time, I kept alert to what was going on around me. This helped me feel like I had control which helped me stay calm. Mind you, I wasn’t totally calm, but it could have been worse.
  • My original plan to avoid busy roads was sound. Avoid highways if you can. I was so sorry that I took the highway for the short distance that I did. I was so happy we only had a few exits to go to more safety.

When we arrived back home, 45 minutes after setting out on our icy adventure, I had a glass of wine and counted my blessings. Next time a friend is over and it’s icy out, we’re not going anywhere. There’s plenty of room for a sleepover.

For more driving on ice tips, including the one on what to do if you do start to skid, check out “How to Drive on Icy Roads” at eHow: How to Do About Everything.