What is White Line Fever? Highway Hypnosis Explained

by Pride Transport | Jul 05, 2018


For long-haul drivers rolling down the open road, especially during those never-ending stretches, it's easy to get lost in the rhythm of the journey. Staring at the white lines stretching out endlessly, the hum of rubber on the road can become a hypnotic soundtrack. It's not uncommon for a driver to realize they've covered 500 miles without recalling a single foot of it. When the monotony of miles, the drone of the highway, and the vast emptiness converge, creating a perfect storm, drivers might mentally check out – a phenomenon truckers know well as "white line fever." Now, while it's never a good idea to mentally drift while commanding an 80,000-pound rig, is white line fever as bad as it sounds? Let's navigate through this phenomenon, understanding its nuances and impact on the open-road odyssey.


What is White Line Fever?

Also known as Highway Hypnosis, White Line Fever is the trance-like state that often creeps in during extended drives, where vast distances are covered, and the driver can't recall most of the journey.

Coined in 1963 by G.W. Williams, the term Highway Hypnosis builds on the theories of Ernest Hilgard, an expert in hypnosis. Hilgard argued that hypnosis is an altered state of awareness, not akin to being asleep. In the case of drivers, the mind functions, and the body reacts appropriately, yet the details of the drive slip from memory.

Highway Hypnosis is a classic example of autonomy, the ability to perform actions without conscious thought. This might raise alarms for some, but for a seasoned trucker, it's not necessarily a bad thing – it's just another facet of the road, a manifestation of the white line fever that accompanies the long-haul journey.


Is White Line Fever Dangerous?

White Line Fever can be very dangerous, or even deadly. The biggest problem comes when drivers, non-professionals, mistake highway hypnosis for tired or sleep-deprived driving, and the two are vastly different. Truckers can experience both automaticity and tired driving and it’s important to keep the two separate. One might think that driving on automatic is dangerous, however, automaticity may actually be superior to conscious driving for professional, or skilled drivers.

This is due to the “centipede effect” named after the fable “The Centipede's Dilemma” or “Humphrey’s Law”, after psychologist George Humphrey. Humphrey said; “No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention to the routine of work. If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled.” Where does the centipede come into this?

Well, in the story, the centipede is walking along just fine, using all his many legs, just doing what he does every day. Suddenly, another animal asks how he is able to walk with all those feet. As soon as the centipede thinks about it rather than just doing what comes naturally, his legs get all tangled up and he falls over. For truckers, an experienced driver will find themselves in the midst of highway hypnosis but instead of being “checked out” they will automatically scan the environment for threats and alert the brain of danger. They are so comfortable and well-equipped for the job that the body and the mind react as normal and keep the driver safe. This is automaticity in action, proving Humphrey’s theory. For driving professionals, white line fever isn't necessarily a bad thing. 


Tired Driving

For an experienced trucker, someone accustomed to spending a substantial 60% of their life on the road, slipping into a trance-like state often signifies the onset of highway hypnosis or white line fever. However, this phenomenon differs significantly for non-professional drivers or those relatively new to trucking. In their case, the dull, trance-like state they experience is more accurately described as falling asleep at the wheel—a perilous scenario distinct from the hypnotic state of white-line fever.

In the grip of automaticity, a seasoned driver effortlessly responds to the surroundings, processing information about other vehicles and potential obstacles. Conversely, a tired driver succumbs to tunnel vision, and their awareness is dramatically reduced. The concerning aspect is the tendency of tired drivers to overreact once they jolt back to reality, compensating for perceived dangers with abrupt steering maneuvers or sudden braking. This overcompensation stems from the disorientation that momentarily follows awakening.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports a staggering 100,000 collisions per year, resulting in approximately 1550 fatalities due to fatigued driving. Studies emphasize that sleep-deprived driving surpasses the dangers associated with operating a vehicle under the influence of 0.05% blood alcohol. White line fever, while inducing an altered state of awareness, ensures the driver remains fully awake and functional. In contrast, tired driving epitomizes the opposite—diminished awareness and functionality.

Truckers often describe white line fever as an odd sensation, feeling somewhat detached from themselves, and expressing concerns about lapses in memory during the drive. While one may be marginally safer than the other, it is imperative to strive for situations that avoid both white line fever and tired driving for optimal safety on the road.


How Can I Avoid White Line Fever?


  1. Get Regular Rest
  2. Stretch Your Legs
  3. Change What You Are Listening to
  4. Sit Up Straight
  5. Drink a Coffee
  6. Talk To Your Passenger


If you’re driving along and you suddenly experience not being able to recall the last few miles of driving, any near misses with other vehicles or roadway obstacles or you start drifting over highway lines or rumble strips, you may be tired and you definitely need to pay attention. Here are some ways to combat tired driving or white line fever.

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Get Regular Rest

To fend off the onset of white line fever, regular rest becomes a non-negotiable necessity, especially for those traversing long distances or maintaining constant travel. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule aids the body in anticipating and embracing its designated rest periods, contributing to overall well-being.


Get Out and Stretch Your Legs

Incorporating breaks to stretch your legs is pivotal. Even a brief ten-minute walk can invigorate the body, enhancing blood circulation and resetting the mind. While some may argue time constraints, the question remains, can you truly afford to neglect these essential breaks?


Change What You Are Listening To

Diversify your auditory experience to ward off monotony-induced mental fatigue. Switching up your music genre, exploring audiobooks, or engaging in language tapes can effectively keep your mind alert and engaged.


Sit Up Straight

Maintaining proper posture, heeding the age-old advice of sitting up straight, not only combats physical discomfort but also improves blood flow to the brain, minimizing kinks, strains, and pinching.


Drink a Coffee

Fuel your alertness with a cup of coffee or any caffeinated beverage. Caffeine's role as an antagonist to adenosine receptors provides a much-needed wake-up call to your system, acting as a reliable ally against the encroaching white line fever.


Talk To Your Passenger

Engaging in conversation with a passenger serves as an effective strategy to snap out of highway hypnosis and reinvigorate your focus. For professional drivers who may not always have a human companion, the companionship of a canine co-pilot can be equally beneficial. Many truckers opt to bring their dogs on the road, not only for the joyous company but also for the heightened awareness that comes from caring for another being in the cab.


White Line Fever The Song and The Movie

In 1969 Merle Haggard wrote a song about White Line Fever titled “White Line Fever”, the song was released on his immensely popular “Mamma Tried'' album. In 1971 the song was covered by the Flying Burrito Brothers.

In 1975 director Jonathan Kaplan made the film “White Line Fever”. The film features a young man who becomes an independent long-haul truck driver in Arizona. The protagonists spends the movie fighting off the corruption of the local trucking industry. The film has an IMDB rating of 6.1/10.


Stay Safe

White Line Fever has been a popular subject for along time and yet, it’s not that entertaining when it’s happening to you. Most importantly, the difference between white-line fever and sleep-deprived driving is very important to keep in mind. Use some of the suggestions here to keep yourself safe on the road and, if you have a particular way of staving off the fever, why not leave it here and help others on the road stay safe as well.

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