Well, it’s Groundhog Day… Again
Ten years ago this month, I got married in Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day. You may be wondering why my husband and I chose a little-known dreary winter holiday that focuses on a large ground squirrel predicting the weather as the day to declare our commitment to a life-long partnership. Especially with the far more romantic Valentine’s Day happening slightly over a week later, why would we get married on February 2nd? You can blame Bill Murray. Murray starred in the 1993 classic movie “Groundhog Day” (1). The movie focuses on a Pittsburgh area weatherman who becomes trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on the titular holiday first because of a blizzard and secondly because of a time loop that forces him to relive the same day over and over again. Murray does everything in his limited power to end the cycle, including falling in love, suicide, and learning the play the piano. The movie “Groundhog Day” popularized the modern comical time loop movie trope and directly influenced my wedding date since I wanted to relive my wedding day over and over again.
You may be asking what time loops and marriage have to do with fatigue risk management. The answer is monotony. As much as scientists stress the importance of maintaining a consistent routine for beneficial health outcomes, doing the same thing over and over again can be boring. Boredom is fatiguing. “Highway hypnosis” is an American term that developed in the 1950s following construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System. These modern superhighways connected the country with roads that cut straight across the landscape with unbending efficiency. The Interstate System heralded in a new era in vehicular transportation, but the builders did not anticipate that driving for hours on straight roads with no turns or distractions would lull drivers into a hypnotic state (2). Highway hypnosis has accounted for an increase in one-car accidents and roadway mishaps since the 1950s (3).
The explanation behind highway hypnosis is that modern highway driving is characterized by monotonous road-watching that results in a kind of trance (2). Operators zone out in the absence of something to do. Long-haul pilots can also suffer from the same tiresome tedium when flying clear skies. Working in monotonous environments causes cognitive fatigue and non-vigilance in operators (4). This kind of fatigue can occur even in well-rested individuals. Fortunately, fatigue due to monotony can be predicted (4). SAFTE-FAST allows users to add workload factors when modeling schedules. Workload factors can include periods of high stimulation with multiple possible distractions, such as when a pilot does a take-off or landing, but can also be used to indicate increased fatigue risk during a period of low stimulation. Workload factors can be set to trigger periodically through the course of an event and are additive. So, for example, in Bill Murray’s case, we could set a workload factor to trigger each time he wakes up at 6:00AM on February 2nd with the expectation that each repeat of Groundhog Day results in greater cognitive fatigue on the part of our protagonist. That is, of course, assuming that SAFTE-FAST is immune to the memory reset that occurs for every character in the movie except for Mr. Murray.
There are ways to counteract highway hypnosis. Many highways now have rumble strips-- rows of indents in the pavement along the side of the road designed to alert inattentive drivers through noise and vibration. In-cab systems that monitor eye or head movement can also help professional drivers avoid hypnosis. Taking a break during a long stretch of road can help improve vigilance as well. Taking breaks can help combat monotony in workplaces on and off the road. How does Bill Murray finally escape the monotony of living the same day over and over again? There are multiple theories. I chose to believe that he escapes the cycle once he learns to use his seemingly endless amount of time to become the best possible version of himself. Murray’s character learns empathy, altruism, and yes, how to play the piano. However, one thing still bothers me about the end of “Groundhog Day”. Murray wakes up at 6:00AM on February 3rd even though he went to bed after 3:00AM on Feb 2nd (judging by when it began to snow*). So, even though Bill Murray may not have to deal with cognitive non-vigilance due to monotony on Feb 3rd, his sleep debt still constitutes a fatigue risk.
*In an earlier scene in Groundhog Day, Murray’s character Phil convinces Andie MacDowell’s character Rita to wait up with him to see how the time loop resets. Rita is upset to see that the time loop doesn’t reset at midnight, but decides to continue waiting. The clock then shows 3:02AM and we can see through the window that it is beginning to snow. On the night before the time loop is broken, Phil kisses Rita at Gobbler’s Knob just as it begins to snow. We can therefore assume that the couple is awake past 3:00AM.