Highway Hypnosis and Fatal Truck Accidents

By Michael GrossmanApril 19, 2017Reading Time: 5 minutes

We've written many times, and will write many more, about how alcohol and distractions can cause serious accidents, but sometimes these are not factors in a crash. A dangerous lapse in concentration can be caused by highway hypnosis--the phenomenon when a motorist's brain "checks out" and mindfulness of the present is lost. Put another way, highway hypnosis is a distraction caused by the absence of any other distractions.

Highway hypnosis likely ranks as the most overlooked potential cause of an accident. Without the tell-tale signs of intoxicants or distracted driving, any mention of highway hypnosis as the cause of an accident comes off sounding very speculative. However, when there is no other obvious cause for a seemingly inexplicable accident, it is appropriate to at least consider the possibility that highway hypnosis played a role.

Stonewall County, TX: April 7, 2017

According to authorities with the Texas Department of Public Safety, the three-vehicle collision happened near Aspermont around 1:30 p.m. near the intersection of U.S. Highways 83 and 380. A tractor-trailer was stopped in the eastbound lane of US-380, waiting to make a left-hand turn. A Toyota pickup was stopped behind it, waiting for it to complete the turn.

As the pair of vehicles idled, a second 18-wheeler ran into the back of the pickup, pushing it at high speed into the first tractor-trailer. The collision caused the pickup truck to catch fire.

The pickup truck's driver was identified by Texas DPS as 69-year-old Stephen Lloyd Fitts. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash.

The drivers of both 18-wheelers were transported to a nearby hospital. The driver of the second truck was treated and released, while the trucker hit by the pickup suffered serious injuries. Neither trucker was identified by name. Authorities continue to investigate the circumstances of the crash; alcohol was not cited as a possible factor. Currently nothing indicates that distracted driving was responsible for the accident either, which means that the victim's family, authorities, and the public are left grasping for the reasons behind a seemingly-inexplicable accident that occurred in good weather, with great visibility, in the middle of the day.

Possible Reasons for A Crash

In many of the cases the firm has worked on, no immediately-plausible reason for a collision can be found. The established timeline of the crash in Aspermont leaves little doubt that the rearmost trucker is liable for this accident, given that the pickup truck and the frontmost semi-truck were stopped in anticipation of a turn. The real question is why the rearmost trucker did not adjust his speed to avoid the collision. There's a list of probable causes for this that usually corresponds to the findings of accident investigators, but until their examination is complete, we can look at some possibilities:

  • Distracted driving. This offense, despite its widespread prevalence and increasing frequency, is hard to detect and enforce. Sometimes a post hoc analysis of the offender's phone can detect activity (a message sent, a website visited) within moments of the crash, suggesting that the driver's attention was on his or her lap rather than the road. Most of the time, though, it is very difficult to observe and stop a distracted driver in the middle of such offenses, which is the standard of evidence required for officers to make such a traffic stop. It might have been easier in the past to see a driver struggling with a fold-out map or negotiating a chili-cheese dog while in motion. These are still unwise choices and divert attention from the road, of course, but at least police and state troopers have an easier time intervening after observing such behaviors. The age of the "Internet of Things" has exponentially increased the dangers of distracted driving while making the signs of it harder to see.
  • Intoxicated driving. I genuinely wish I weren't able to say this, but Grossman Law has encountered numerous instances of intoxicated truckers causing accidents. Cross-country freight haulage is a dangerous and time-intensive occupation. The pressure of deadlines and the psychological effects of long-interval solitude can cause some drivers to buckle under the pressure, at which point they turn to drugs or alcohol to lessen the ennui of the road. A drunk driver in a passenger car is already like a stray bullet, but an 18-wheeler with an intoxicated pilot is an artillery shell by comparison. Others have been known to make use of over-the-counter supplements like "mini-thins" (derivatives of ephedrine, a medical stimulant) or other more illicit "uppers" like methamphetamine or cocaine.
    Intoxicants weren't cited as a factor in the Aspermont crash, but it's something of a red flag that the 18-wheeler hit a stationary vehicle. It seems based on the described scenario that the inbound semi-truck should have had time to notice the pickup (and the 18-wheeler immediately in front of it) and stop. This could indicate simple distraction, or something more sinister, but allow me to repeat this is just speculation.

     

  • Driver fatigue. This could almost fit within any of the other listed categories; exhaustion is distracting, effects the body and brain like a narcotic drug, and can often lead to the semi-fugue state associated with highway hypnosis. As I mentioned, truckers fight that feeling with caffeine and worse drugs, but what goes up must come down. Even ordinary commuters fall asleep behind the wheel on occasion after a few too many cups of coffee during the day. A long haul from Florida to Idaho could be a lot worse; if it's on a tight timeframe some bad choices could be made, and the cost for those can be far too dear.

     

  • Highway hypnosis. The term "highway hypnosis" sounds suspiciously like it was invented by an ad agency, but it's essentially just describing the trancelike state entered by people in situations of sustained monotony. When the mind is doing one thing and the body another, that's the basis of a hypnotic state, so wandering thoughts behind the wheel dupe the brain into a trance.
    The phenomenon was recognized as far back as the 1920's, when it was referred to as "road hypnotism." Road trips are perfect examples of situations without enough stimuli to occupy the brain. I can't imagine the toll a long-haul freight run takes, and I'm grateful to every responsible driver that handles it correctly.

No Matter the Cause, There is an Effect.

Not every trucker is guilty of such lapses in judgment, and I don't want to suggest any such thing. Part of combating highway hypnosis is having enough awareness to stop and take periodic breaks. Even 5 minutes outside of a vehicle is often enough to refocus the mind and reestablish a safe driving rhythm.

Highway hypnosis is also not a valid legal defense unto itself. While it may be the cause of many accidents, it doesn't mean that the circumstances that lead to the state are unknown. In fact, they're so well known that simple web-search will yield many suggestions for keeping one's mind on the road.

At the end of the day, driving is a privilege. One of the conditions of that privilege is that we have to drive in a manner that doesn't endanger others. It's hard to imagine how someone could safely drive a vehicle when their mind is off in the clouds. Like almost every other instance of vehicular negligence, drivers who injure others because of highway hypnosis ultimately do so because they place their own need to get somewhere ahead of their duty to do so in a safe manner.

If they really believe that, they're dreaming.