- Created on 05 December 2013
AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
NEW YORK (AP) -- 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.
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 the engineer, William 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."
- Created on 04 December 2013
Jetta Productions via Getty Images
"I was in a daze. I don't know what I was thinking about and the next thing I know I was hitting the brakes."
Those were William Rockefeller's words to a law enforcement source, the New York Daily News reports, as investigators examine the moments leading up to the Metro North train derailment in the Bronx on Sunday that killed four and injured 75.
Unlike previously reported, Rockefeller seems to have been well-rested, officials say. "There's every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep," Earl Weener of the National Transportation Safety Board told the Daily News.
While zoned out, it's been suggested that Rockefeller may have slipped into what's known as microsleep, when you nod off for just a few seconds, often without even knowing you're doing so. People in microsleep might even still have their eyes open, or still carry out tasks "as if on a kind of auto-pilot," ABC News reported.
Read the rest of the story here.
- Created on 03 December 2013
In an incredible example of paying it forward, 100 lives have been saved by strangers involved in a kidney exchange program.
At the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center Monday, recipients and donors in UCLA's Kidney Exchange Program gathered together, some meeting for the first time, KTLA reports...
Read the rest of the story here.
- Created on 03 December 2013
The FDA says it's taking a fresh look at caffeinated food and plans to hone in on how energy drinks impact young people.
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(upwave) -- The rumor: It's possible to get caffeine poisoning
As he was driving down an Ohio freeway minutes after swallowing five Magnum 357 caffeine pills, Christian Brenner started to vibrate -- and the cars in his rearview mirror did as well. Fortunately, Brenner pulled over and walked around in an effort to try and come down.
Today, he swears off caffeine, even coffee -- the mental aftereffect of what he says was straight-up caffeine poisoning.
upwave: Is coffee bad for you?
The verdict: Yes, you can OD on caffeine. The trick is to know your body, pay attention to what else you've ingested and do your homework on energy drinks
Caffeine acts as a stimulant in humans. It can be found in the seeds, leaves and fruit of plants like coffee or kola nuts.
"Safe doses of caffeine are usually quoted at around 200 to 300 milligrams, or two to four cups of coffee per day," says Dr. David Seres, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University.
There have been plenty of reports that say caffeine is beneficial. Some studies call it a potential protector from diseases such as Parkinson's, and even some forms of cancer.
upwave: Can coffee help you live longer?
But those 357 Magnum Pills that Brenner ate contain 200 milligrams of caffeine each, which means he downed around 1,000 milligrams of caffeine in one big literal gulp.
Take note: Energy drinks like Red Bull usually contain around 80 milligrams of caffeine in an eight-ounce can. Some of the bigger cans (such as a 16-ounce Monster) have up to 240 milligrams. Meanwhile, a 16-ounce cup of coffee (think a venti at Starbucks) packs upwards of 300 milligrams.
Barbara Crouch, executive director at the Utah Poison Control Center, says that unlike coffee drinkers, energy drink consumers (especially young people) like to chug down not just one, but two or three of the peppy beverages to get a good jolt on before a hardcore workout, soccer practice or maybe to enhance a night of dancing.
"When you pound down more than one energy drink verses sipping a cup of coffee, you're not metabolizing it the same way," she says, adding that factors like size, age, sex, drug interactions, hydration levels and the amount of food in the stomach can mean different outcomes for different people when on a caffeine binge. "Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as caffeine poisoning, and the dose essentially makes the poison," she says.
upwave: Are sports drinks healthy?
But Crouch has a bigger bone to pick with the makers of energy drinks: She says that many of them aren't being fully forthcoming about ingredients. Seres points out that many "natural" additives -- such as guarana, taurine and so-called "Siberian ginseng" -- haven't been fully tested.
"Energy drinks contain other 'natural' ingredients, which may have additional amounts of caffeine," says Seres. "They're also likely to contain herbs with stimulatory effects not tested for safety or interactions with prescription drugs, and other potentially pharmacologically active substances."
But James Coughlin, a food, nutritional, chemical and toxicology safety expert in Los Angeles who consults for the American Beverage Association (the industry group that represents energy drink companies), disputes that.
"The caffeine contained in the guarana of an energy drink is only around one milligram, versus the 80 milligrams of synthetic caffeine added by a beverage company such as Red Bull," he says. "The lethal dose of caffeine is 10 to 20 grams of pure powder caffeine, so if you were going to try and kill yourself with caffeine, you'd probably drown in the liquid first if you did it with coffee -- and even more so with an energy drink."
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Coughlin calls the very idea that beverage companies are sneaking caffeine into energy drinks through other ingredients a total myth.
Still, it'd be hard to deny headlines claiming that there have been increased energy drink-related visits to emergency rooms. One highly cited 2011 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stated that energy drink-related emergency-department visits went from 10,068 visits in 2007 to 20,783 visits in 2011.
All the press about energy drinks led the Federal Drug Administration to say it's taking a fresh look at caffeinated food -- and that it plans to hone in on how energy drinks impact young people.
"We are contracting with the Institute of Medicine to conduct a public meeting to obtain additional scientific information and expert input on caffeine and are actively reaching out to the food industry and health care practitioners to discuss concerns about caffeine in conventional foods and dietary supplements," says FDA spokesperson Teresa Eisenman.
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Crouch, however, cautions that people should monitor caffeine intake from other sources as well.
"So you have that cup of coffee, but lo and behold you decide to get an extra-dark bar of chocolate," she says. "Or you drink a soda. Or maybe you do take an allergy pill or a dietary supplement." Truth be told, sometimes people miss the fine print on labels about stimulant properties in all these products.
This article was originally published on upwave.com