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Don't remember driving there? It's highway hypnosis

Study: Not remembering chunk of time behind wheel isn't distracted driving

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – You're driving when suddenly there's a moment you don't quite remember a chunk of the driving you just did. It's not distraction or fatigue, and a study proves that in most cases, it's not dangerous.

"I think you just like zone out," said Jacksonville driver Darlene Washington

It's called highway hypnosis when you drive from one place to another and have no recollection of doing it. 

"That is essentially where you're losing a lot of your consciousness and sort of fading and not reacting things, and not seeing things and then fall asleep and boom there's a crash," explained Wayne State University Professor Randall Commissaris.

Highway hypnosis is different than distracted driving where people do things like text, eat or even put on makeup while driving.

"(Distracted driving) is a tremendous threat to safety. Probably 30,000 people a year are involved in crashes with a distracted driver and well over 3,000 a year are killed by a distracted driver," Commissaris said. 

Highway hypnosis occurs when you're paying attention to your driving, but not really. 

"I'm not consciously distracted. I'm not drugged. I'm not drunk. All my facilities are actually engaged in my driving at that time, it's just that I don't remember any of it," Commissaris said. 

Commissaris uses a driving simulator and willing volunteers to study driving. He said, in a hypnotic state, drivers really are aware and paying attention, even if they don't remember doing it. 

"You're so in your routine, you're just driving, driving, driving. You're not looking for exits like you would if it's a new place you've never been before. It's just kind of automated," Oullette said. 

But Commisaris said when you have those black holes of memory while driving, it's nothing to worry about. 

"Probably not a real safety hazard in the sense that they were awake. They were not drowsy. They were responding and reacting appropriately all the time while they were driving," he said. 

Commisaris said it's part of our defense against sensory overload. We keep the memory clear of information that we even unconsciously deem irrelevant. 

To avoid highway hypnosis, it's suggested you:

  • Change up your regular driving routine.
  • Rest before driving long distances.
  • If driving a long period of time, stop and take a break every 90 minutes or so.

About the Authors:

Anchor on The Morning Show team and reporter specializing on health issues.