“Highway Hypnosis” May Have Caused Rail Wreck

According to the lawyer for the engineer who was running the Metro-North train that crashed on December 1, killing 4 passengers and injuring many others, the engineer experienced a momentary loss of awareness as he was zooming down the rails in a 70-mph speed zone; the train apparently failed to reduce speed in time as it entered a sharp curve, with speed limit only 30 mph.  The event recorder on the train recorded speeds as high as 82 mph just before the wreck.  Was “highway hypnosis” a factor?  Perhaps, according to reporting by Jennifer Peitz and Sam Hananel (Star-Ledger, December 5, by the Associated Press).

There is little scientific study on the phenomenon; some experts equate the condition with an “autopilot state” in which performing a task, usually routine, for long periods, occurs without conscious attention to it.  The individual enters a dazed state, which might actually be sleep, particularly if he or she has an undiagnosed sleep disorder.  Meanwhile, in this case, the 46-year-old engineer has been suspended from his job without pay, the usual response of a railroad when an employee has apparently violated the rules and caused a serious accident.

However, is the engineer alone in responsibility for the disaster?  Consider an Interstate highway that runs straight as an arrow for miles and then suddenly has a 30-mph curve.  Highway authorities would be remiss if they didn’t post clear warning signs, probably with flashing lights to warn inattentive motorists to slow down.   In contrast, railroads seldom have such warning devices, holding to a long tradition that engineers and conductors need to be “qualified on the territory”, which means they must memorize all the regulations that apply to specific track areas, notably including speed limits; the engineer, alone in his or her cab on most trains, is solely responsible for operating within the limits which are listed in the railroad’s rule books and timetables.—but is this enough to ensure safety, particularly where there are no computerized systems to double-check whether the train is observing speed limits?  These questions invite continuing investigation of how to ensure the safety of rail passengers.