Highway Hypnosis And How To Avoid It

hypnosisI’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.roadPreventing 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.

energy drink
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 Stay Awake Without Caffeine

Bolivia campaigns to legalize coca



Four Loko, meet Coca Colla. CNN reports that Bolivia has launched a campaign to legalize coca, a native plant that has been used for medicinal purposes and as a mild stimulant by the indigenous peoples of the Andes for thousands of years. And yes, coca does contain trace amounts of cocaine. The leaves are used in purified forms of the narcotic, which is what led the United Nations to ban coca in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. The Bolivian government would like the ban amended to make coca a controlled, but not illegal, substance.

Coca leaf is considered saced amongst Andean peoples, and historically has been used to combat everything from altitude sickness to rheumatism (it has anaesthetic properties). The leaves are also used as a digestive aid, and to suppress hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Coca is traditionally chewed or used or as a tea, but now, coca-infused energy drinks are taking the market by storm. Las year, Coca Colla was introduced; it was such a hit that a new beverage, Coca Brynco, debuted this week.

Bolivian president Evo Morales–a former union leader for coca growers–is on a mission to convince the rest of the world of coca’s legitimate non-addictive uses. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has embarked this week on a tour of Europe, hoping to convince EU leaders to support the campaign. The U.S. is not onboard the coca train, and filed a formal objection to legalize it on Wednesday. January 31st is the deadline for all UN members to cast their votes.Bolivia is the third largest coca producer in the world, after Colombia and Peru. If legalized, it could provide a signficant economic, uh, stimulus to the country. In addition to energy drinks, Bolivia hopes to use coca in toothpaste, and even flour (I don’t understand that one, either).

I’ve chewed coca while trekking in the Peruvian Andes, and it definitely helps ease altitude-related symptoms. Quechua porters on the Inca Trail (who are employed to haul all of the gear) chew coca incessantly. I have no doubt that, in addition to genetic adaptability, coca aids their miraculous ability to carry loads nearly equal to their body weight, at high speed, even when barefoot. It’s said that coca is what enabled the Incas to build Macchu Picchu.

There are certainly pros and cons to lifting the coca ban, but hopefully world leaders can overlook the stigma long enough to evaluate the medicinal value of the plant.

Five sleepy driving stats to scare you for Thanksgiving

Are you heading over the river and through the woods for Thanksgiving this year? Well, you better stop for coffee along the way! A new study by AAA finds there’s a pretty big number of sleepy drivers out there. Think about every 10 cars around you: there’s a good chance at least one of those driver’s has dozed off behind the wheel. So, how bad is the problem? Let’s take a look at five sleepy driving statistics that will make you open your eyes wide.

1. Recent risk: 10 percent of drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year

2. Long-term confessions: 41 percent of respondents admit that they’ve done so at least some point in their lives

3. We’re all hypocrites: a whopping 85 percent of drivers find it “completely unacceptable, writes Insurance Networking News, “to drive if someone is so tired that they struggle to keep their eyes open”

4. Crashes are common: according to a new analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, 12.5 percent of crashes leading to hospitalization were caused by fatigued drivers

5. Death is a serious possibility:
16.5 percent of deadly crashes involve drivers too drowsy to belong behind the wheel, also from the analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data

All of this is utterly preventable. Be smart, and know your limits.

[photo by marcn via Flickr]

Plane Answers: NTSB glosses over fatigue in the Colgan crash

As a pilot, I feel the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has failed me. They’re tasked to investigate accidents and report on them so the aviation community can hopefully avoid similar mistakes. They also submit recommendations to the FAA for changes they feel will make air travel safer.

But I have to question the impartiality of the NTSB after seeing the outcome of the Colgan 3407 investigation.

Yesterday the NTSB came out with a report on the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo, New York last year that puts the blame squarely on the captain.

CAPTAIN’S INAPPROPRIATE ACTIONS LED TO CRASH OF FLIGHT 3407 IN CLARENCE CENTER, NEW YORK, NTSB SAYS.

Clearly, the captain reacted to a reduction in airspeed in a way that is contrary to everything we’re taught as pilots. But what caused this?

The NTSB sought to find out just why this reasonably experienced captain would respond in such a manner. Training records were examined, toxicology reports were submitted and everything that was said by the crew during the flight was analyzed.

Glossed over in the report was the fact that both the captain and first officer had very little sleep over the previous 24 hours. The NTSB says the captain had ‘reduced sleep opportunities’ and attempted to rest in the company crew lounge. Apparently the attempts at sleeping there weren’t effective since the captain logged on to a company computer at 3:10 in the morning.

The first officer likely had a full day near her home in Seattle before commuting on an ‘all-nighter’ to her base in Newark. She also tried to get a nap in at the crew lounge in the morning as well.

But one of the investigators in the Colgan accident, Robert Sumwalt refuses to allow for the possibility that fatigue was even a contributing factor in the accident, saying “…just because the crew was fatigued, that doesn’t mean it was a factor in their performance.”

Incredible.
Numerous studies have concluded that significant sleep deprivation is equivalent to operating while under the influence of alcohol. The British Medical Journal concluded that “after 17–19 hours without sleep, performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, (up to 28 hours) performance reached levels equivalent to the maximum alcohol dose given to subjects (BAC of 0.10%).”

It’s illegal to drive a car in the U.S. with a blood alcohol content at or above 0.08 to 0.10%.

The role of fatigue was mentioned during an NTSB hearing on the Colgan accident. Board chairman Deborah Hersman argued that several issues, including the crew’s sleep deficits and the time of day the accident took place, were factors and said that fatigue was present and should be counted as a contributing factor to the crew’s performance.

But the view of board member and former USAirways pilot Robert Sumwalt prevailed. He concluded that fatigue wasn’t a factor in the accident. It didn’t stop them from detailing the role it played in Colgan 3407 (PDF LINK)

So if nicotine is found to cause some cancer, but its role in a person’s life expectancy cannot be determined, should we rule it out as a possible factor in a lung cancer death?

The British Medical Journal study concluded that fatigue does affect performance, finding that, “getting less than 6 hours a night can affect coordination, reaction time and judgment” and poses “a very serious risk” to drivers.

It was precisely this reaction time and judgment that are to blame in the Colgan accident. I’m sure if you had asked Captain Renslow about the proper response in a stall, he would have been able to recite the steps verbatim. But that night, he was operating in a fog caused by a lack of quality sleep for the past 36 hours.

And the copilot, Rebecca Shaw, after commuting across the country all night before starting her day, misinterpreted the stall for possible icing conditions that she thought was affecting the tail and so she retracted the flaps during the recovery, exacerbating an already difficult recovery.

Most pilots expected sleep deprivation to play the leading role in the Colgan 3407 accident. The industry has averaged nearly an accident a year for the past twenty years with fatigue listed as a contributing factor. Could this have been the first case where a lack of sleep was actually considered the cause of a crash?

If a lack of sleep can affect affect coordination, reaction time and judgment, how conclusive does fatigue have to be, to be considered a cause in an accident that lists improper reactions and judgement as the main factors?

This time the NTSB isn’t even attaching fatigue as a ‘contributing factor’ in the Colgan accident, even though they went on to say in the report:

All pilots, including those who commute to their home base of operations, have a personal responsibility to wisely manage their off-duty time and effectively use available rest periods so that they can arrive for work fit for duty; the accident pilots did not do so by using an inappropriate facility during their last rest period before the accident flight.

There is no doubt in my mind that, if a BAC of, say, .08% were discovered in the pilots’ blood that the NTSB would list this as the cause of the accident and close the case.

I’ve always been a proponent of the NTSB. They look at human factor trends and educate us on ways to avoid them. As a fresh 20 year-old pilot, I even defended the local NTSB office in a KOMO4 TV news report when their numbers were reduced.

The NTSB has done as much as the FAA to ensure safe flying for the masses. I don’t understand why they’ve been reluctant to properly address the role of fatigue in a number of accident reports.

Perhaps it’s because airlines are terrified at the thought of reducing the 16-hour duty day further, which could lead to the recall of a few pilots at each company. Airlines point to a policy that allows a pilot to call in ‘fatigued’ if they don’t feel rested. But we don’t allow pilots to self diagnose when they’re too drunk to fly-we simply have limits on how much time must pass before they can fly.

So the fatigue policy, while helpful, isn’t the only way to ensure pilots are well rested on their next flight. Furthermore, Colgan unilaterally put new restrictions on the use of fatigue calls by its pilots.

But the FAA was confident enough that fatigue was a causal factor in the Colgan Dash 8 accident to start acting before the final NTSB report has been issued. They are working on new limits that will reduce the duty day for pilots, which includes both flight time and the time sitting around in airports between flights.

To appease the industry, the FAA may have to agree to a slight increase in flight time limits-the number of hours a pilot is allowed to be in the air in a day-currently 8 hours for a two-pilot crew-to secure improvements to the current 16 hour duty day for pilots.

I applaud the FAA’s decision to take on this cause after their previous 1995 attempt failed. At least the FAA seems to recognize that, for most pilots, it’s not the number of hours flown in a day, but it’s the amount of time on duty, and during what time of day a pilot is on duty that affects our safety.

Because there’s no way we’ll solve the fatigue issue if we continue to deny it leads to accidents.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

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Combine caffeine and naps for jet lag help

Here’s what I do to deal with jet lag. I don’t go to sleep much before I travel. I think I was a hamster in my past life. I’m the type who wants to get every last project done, every last dish washed, every last chore behind me before I head out the door. I ruminate. I become more compulsive than usual.

Sometimes, I stay up so late that going to bed may not make sense. That’s what happened before the good-deed travel Mexico trip. It got to be 4:00 a.m. and I thought, I’m getting up in two hours anyway, so why bother? I slept on the plane on and off, and went to bed early the following night. When I travel across time zones, this staying up late makes me tired enough that the jet lag is not as noticeable. I’m thrown off already, what’s a bit more?

When I was living in Singapore, one of my closest friend’s parents visited from the U.S. They are the hearty, cross-country skiing type who stay on a scheduled routine. Their answer to jet lag was to go on a long hike through the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve almost as soon as they arrived at our apartment. Our complex edged the preserve which made hiking there pretty darned convenient. They went to bed when they normally do, and seemed not to suffer much. Getting out in the air and sunshine is one way diminish that groggy, disheveled feeling.

There was an article recently in the New York Times that explains how a combination of coffee and naps can help thwart jet lag. I suppose this is what I do, but less scientifically. I always order coffee and a club soda when I fly. Coffee for the boost, and soda water for the hydration. It feels fancier than regular water. Anything one can do to spruce up travel in my opinion.

The photo is of my 2nd cup of coffee on the Southwest flight. It’s slightly out of focus, but then, so was I.