The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Breaking News

December 5, 2013

NY train wreck could be case of highway hypnosis

NEW YORK —  It's sometimes called highway hypnosis or white-line fever, and it's familiar to anyone who has driven long distances along a monotonous route.

Drivers are lulled into a semi-trance state and reach their destination with little or no memory of parts of the trip. But what if it happened to an engineer at the controls of a speeding passenger train?

A man driving a Metro-North Railroad commuter train that went off the rails Sunday in New York, killing four passengers, experienced a momentary loss of awareness as he zoomed down the tracks, according to his lawyer and union representative, who called the episode a "nod," a "daze" or highway hypnosis.

Their accounts raised questions about just how widespread the problem is in the transportation industry and what can be done to combat it.

At the time of the crash, the train was going 82 mph into a sharp turn where the speed limit drops to 30 mph. That's when the engineer says he snapped out of it and hit the brakes, but it was too late. The train hurtled off the tracks, leaving a chain of twisted cars just inches from a river in the Bronx.

The engineer, William Rockefeller, has been suspended without pay. A spokesman for Metro-North Railroad said Thursday that Rockefeller is "out of service, and not being paid."

While the term highway hypnosis has been around for decades, there's no technical definition of it and scant specific medical study of it, although multiple studies have found that long driving times on straight roads can cause people to lose focus.

Some experts equate highway hypnosis with a sort of autopilot state — performing a task, usually competently, without awareness of it. Sleep experts say the daze could really be a doze, especially if a driver has undiagnosed sleep problems.

Whatever it is, nearly every bus or train driver has experienced the feeling of being momentarily unaware while driving long hours, said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Hanley, who spent eight years driving a bus in New York, recalled spending a week on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift and sometimes stopping to pick up passengers who weren't there.

"You find yourself stopping, and you open the doors, and all you see is a mailbox," he said, adding that fatigue and work schedule changes play a role.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has yet to determine the cause of the crash, concluded talking with the engineer Tuesday. Investigators continued interviewing the train's other crew members. Investigators have said Rockefeller had enough time off for a full night's rest before the crash, but they were looking at his activities in the previous days.

Highway hypnosis doesn't show up often in medical literature, but numerous researchers have looked at the effect that monotonous driving can have on alertness and reaction time.

In one early paper on the phenomenon, published in 1962, retired Rutgers University psychologist Griffith Wynne Williams wrote that the modern superhighway's smooth, uninterrupted stretches of concrete could put people in a daze.

"Driving under these conditions makes little demand on the driver's orientation to reality," he wrote. "The distracting stimuli are few."

It's the "Where did those 10 miles go?" sensation of realizing you've been driving apparently without paying attention to the road or yourself, said Stephen J. Morse, a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Many sleep experts see highway hypnosis as micro-sleep, a phenomenon often attributed to fatigue or sleep deprivation.

Most people don't even realize when they've been micro-sleeping — for example, "resting their eyes" for a few seconds, said Dr. James Maas, a sleep expert and retired Cornell University psychology professor.

"Many of those times you were asleep. You're just not going to remember it," he said.

Transportation safety advocates also have long been concerned about fatigue in all modes of transportation.

In 2008, the operator of a transit train was killed after she fell into a micro-sleep and collided with another train in Newton, Mass. Fatigue also was a factor when two trains collided in Red Oak, Iowa, in 2011, killing two crew members.

A survey of transportation workers last year by the National Sleep Foundation found 26 percent of train operators said sleepiness affected their job performance at least once a week, compared with only 17 percent of non-transportation workers. About 18 percent of train operators reported having a "near miss" at work because of fatigue, and 44 percent of train operators said their work schedule did not allow enough time for sleep.

Rockefeller's schedule, which had recently switched from the afternoon shift to the day shift, could be a cause for concern about fatigue, said Patrick Sherry, executive director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at the University of Denver, which studies national transportation issues.

"Did he make an appropriate transition from his previous shift to this new shift?" Sherry said.

How long that transition takes is highly individual — think jet lag, which levels some people while others adjust easily, said Dr. Clete Kushida, a neurologist and sleep specialist at Stanford University Medical Center.

Federal investigators would not comment on Rockefeller's level of alertness. The NTSB had found no problems with the brakes or rail signals. Alcohol tests on crew members were negative, and investigators are awaiting the results of drug tests.

The NTSB has issued more than 200 recommendations addressing fatigue, including scheduling problems that disrupt sleep patterns, Chairman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Hersman said positive train control technology, which can slow or stop a train that's speeding or otherwise not being operated correctly, might have forestalled the derailment. Railroads are facing a congressional deadline to install such systems by December 2015.

"This is the type of accident that positive train control is designed to prevent," Hersman said.

As for how to avoid micro-sleeping, a 10- to 20-minute nap or a cup of coffee can help in a pinch, suggested Kushida.

But experts agree there's no substitute for getting good sleep.

Truck driver Alex Gordon agrees. He drives for no more than 10 hours at a time and makes sure to get enough sleep, and he says he's never experienced highway hypnosis.

"I drive 10 hours, sleep 11," the Miami-based Gordon said Wednesday during a break at a truck stop in Kearny, N.J. "You just can't" put people in danger, he said.

In case of an engineer becoming incapacitated, the train's front car was equipped with a dead man's pedal, which must be depressed or the train will automatically slow down.

Trains also can have alarms, sometimes called alerters, which sound if the operators' controls haven't been moved within a certain timeframe. If an engineer does not respond, often by pressing a button, brakes automatically operate. But the train that derailed didn't have such a system, a Metro-North spokeswoman said.

Rockefeller, 46, has worked for the railroad for 15 years and has been an engineer for 10.

Crews are rebuilding the damaged track where Rockefeller's train crashed. One of three tracks on the affected line reopened Wednesday, and commuters said they were grateful service was restored fairly quickly.

"We don't get to complain," said Elite Rubin, who does marketing for an accounting firm. "We weren't on that train where people died."

 

1
Text Only
Breaking News
  • news_skoreaferry.jpg Fears rise for missing in South Korea ferry sinking

    Fears rose Thursday for the fate of 289 passengers still missing more than 24 hours after their ferry flipped onto its side and filled with water off the southern coast of South Korea.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_ukraineprotests.jpg Pro-Russian gunmen make inroads in eastern Ukraine

    The well-armed, Moscow-backed insurgency sowing chaos in eastern Ukraine scored a new victory Wednesday, seizing armored vehicles and weapons from underequipped government forces, then rolling through two cities to a hero’s welcome.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_detroitsunset.jpg Detroit still needs $350M from state lawmakers

    Pressure was building Wednesday for Michigan lawmakers to commit $350 million to Detroit pensions, a day after the city reached tentative agreements with pension funds and a retiree group to reduce payouts.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • NWS - HB0417 - Sperry Funeral - 10.jpg Family, friends bid farewell to Jesse Sperry

    The fussing of 10-day-old Autumn Marie Sperry seemed to coincide with the beginning of the funeral service for her father, Jesse Sperry, whose body rested just a few feet away. More than 200 friends and family members gathered at Edgewood Baptist Church this afternoon to pay their respects to Jesse, who was killed April 6 in a traffic accident on Indiana 32.

    April 16, 2014 2 Photos

  • news_malaysiaplanesearch.jpg Sub makes second dive to search for Malaysian plane

    As a robotic submarine dived into the ocean to look for lost Flight 370, angry Chinese relatives stormed out of a teleconference meeting Wednesday to protest the Malaysian government for not addressing them in person.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • 3 APTOPIX Police Conver_Unde-1.jpg Feds: Boston bombing suspect not entitled to '11 murder file

    Federal prosecutors have told a judge they have no evidence that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev knew about his brother's alleged role in a triple slaying in Waltham two years before the bombings.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Nebraska toddler gets stuck inside claw machine

    Authorities say a toddler has been reunited with his mother after employees found him playing inside a claw crane machine at a Nebraska bowling alley.

    April 16, 2014

  • Boston police safely blow up suspicious backpacks

    Survivors, first responders and relatives of those killed in the Boston Marathon bombing marked the anniversary Tuesday with tributes that combined sorrow over the loss of innocent victims with pride over the city's resilience in the face of a terror attack.

    April 16, 2014

  • 292 missing, 4 dead in South Korea ferry disaster

    A ferry carrying 459 people, mostly high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island, sank off South Korea's southern coast on Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing despite a frantic, hours-long rescue by dozens of ships and helicopters. At least four people were confirmed dead and 55 injured.

    April 16, 2014

  • Leaders await decision on Indiana Plan expansion

    Two of the state's top Republican lawmakers said Tuesday that they would like to see the federal government sign off on an expansion of Medicaid through the state's health care plan for low-income residents, but they added that they have little idea how soon that could happen.

    April 16, 2014

Featured Ads
More Resources from The Herald Bulletin
AP Video
Disbanding Muslim Surveillance Draws Praise Hundreds Missing After South Korean Ferry Sinks Passengers Abuzz After Plane Hits Swarm of Bees Boston Bomb Scare Defendant Appears in Court Pistorius Trial: Adjourned Until May 5 Diaz Gets Physical for New Comedy Raw: Ferry Sinks Off South Korean Coast Town, Victims Remember Texas Blast Freeze Leaves Florida Panhandle With Dead Trees At Boston Marathon, a Chance to Finally Finish Are School Dress Codes Too Strict? Raw: Fatal Ferry Boat Accident Suspicious Bags Found Near Marathon Finish Line Boston Marks the 1st Anniversary of Bombing NYPD Ends Muslim Surveillance Program 8-year-old Boy Gets His Wish: Fly Like Iron Man Sex Offenders Arrested in Slayings of CA Women India's Transgenders Celebrate Historic Ruling Tributes Mark Boston Bombing Anniversary Raw: Kan. Shooting Suspect Faces Judge
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Helium debate
Helium
Front page
Poll

How often would you ride an express bus to Indianapolis?

Every work day
Once or twice a week
Occasionally
I'll stick to driving my car, thank you
     View Results