Why doesn’t the driver get carsick?

I used to get terribly car sick as a boy but fortunately it went away by itself in my mid-teens. But I know adults who never get over it and this makes life quite difficult for them. But one thing that has been noted is that of you are the driver of the vehicle, you are less likely to feel sick and people have tried to understand why.

The thought that comes to mind is that somehow being in control of the motion mitigates the effects of the motion and a new study directly examines that hypothesis. They had two people whose head motions were constrained so that they had to move together but only one person could determine the motion while the other had to follow passively. Here’s the abstract of the paper.

The central hypothesis of the work is that the dimension of control-no control plays an important role in motion sickness. Although it is generally agreed that having control over a moving vehicle greatly reduces the likelihood of motion sickness, few studies have addressed this issue directly, and the theoretical explanation for this phenomenon is not completely clear. In this study, we equated groups differing in controllability for head movement, vision, activity, and predictability, which have often been suggested in the literature as explanations for the driver’s immunity to motion sickness. Twenty-two pairs of yoked subjects were exposed to nauseogenic rotation. One subject of each pair had control over the rotation and head movements, while the other was exposed passively to the same motion stimulus. Subjects who had control reported significantly fewer motion sickness symptoms and less of a decrement in their well-being, as compared to the yoked subject without control. The results are discussed in relation to Reason’s sensory rearrangement theory and the concept of feed-forward mechanisms in motion perception.

Unfortunately the paper is behind a paywall but you can read a little bit more about the study here.

It is important to realize that the authors are not claiming that this is the sole factor, just an important one. There are other aspects of control that also come into play.

One is the mismatch between what your eyes tell you (that you are not moving if you are looking only at objects inside the vehicle) and what your body tells you (that you are moving) can also play a role. The latter effect may explain why reading in a car is not recommended but looking steadfastly at the moving scenery may help. Of course, when one is on a plane or a big sea-going vessel, seeing outside may not be easy.


  1. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    My experience in the Navy taught me that motion sickness is all about the horizon.

    If you can see the horizon, a stable point/line, then your body can understand what is going on.

    When we had new sailors in rough seas for the first time, I would tell them to go topside and stare at the horizon for a bit and they would feel better. That worked for everyone I knew except one seaman who worked for me who got seasick pulling away from the pier. His case was so severe that he was offered shore duty. He declined because he was willing to suffer for the reward of foreign ports.

    Do all you can to keep today on an even keel,

    Have Coffee Will Write

  2. Pen says

    I always thought it was the ability to anticipate just a tiny bit in advance what motion you’re going to be experiencing. Typically the driver can do this because they’re the ones making the decision even if most of what goes on is subconscious and very rapid. Sitting in the front where it’s easier to see the direction of travel can help passengers do the same thing. I don’t get carsick as such, but if I feel even slightly unwell, I need to be able to anticipate what’s going to happen to my body next or I become very unhappy.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    I used to get carsick as a kid. The family occasionally travelled to the coutryside, and all of us kids had the problem. At one point my mother told not to watch out of the side window, because the landscape rolling in one direction for a long time makes you sick. She was probably right. I don’t remember when I got rid of the problem, but it was around the time I had grown tall enough to see over the backrests of the seats. The driver of course can see in all directions all the time.

    The usual explanation for motion sickness is a conflict between the sense of balance (the vestibular system in the inner ear), and what the eyes can see. (Therefore you get seasick only if you can’t see the horizon.) That could also explain my carsickness. Strangely enough, I don’t have a problem with seasickness. Maybe because I have learned to trust my sense of balance rather than my eyes.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    hyphenman @1:

    My experience in the Navy taught me that motion sickness is all about the horizon.

    That’s consistent with my only ‘sea’ voyages; crossing the Channel on a school trip. We were topside both trips, but going out was in a thick fog, and I was sick as a dog. Returning on a clear day, no problem.

  5. rq says

    My friend, who gets seasick in cars only if she doesn’t have a view of the outside (which means sitting in the front only), says it helps to have a kind of point of reference for the eye to latch onto.
    This pretty much jives with what my biomechanics prof told me years ago, about why motion sickness happens at all – because the brain can’t reconcile its internal senses with external stimuli, and since a similar effect occurs when the body is poisoned, it tries to rid the body of any extra toxins by puking up everything possible. If the brain can be convinced, however (via a steady point of reference) that everything is fine, it calms down and manages to deal with the information.

  6. angharad says

    Interesting. I am one of the few people I know who can read in cars. Apparently this makes a lot of people sick, even those who wouldn’t normally get carsick. I almost never get any kind of motion sickness. However, if I take a long journey in the passenger seat of a car and spend most of that time looking out of the windows, then I will get a migraine. I don’t drive, so I can’t say how I would be in that situation, but I could see myself getting a migraine after a long day driving too.

  7. Jonny Vincent says

    This is an interesting study. I’ve always been told it was a damaged inner ear. I get sick in traffic, or smog, or if the car odour is unpleasant. A few minutes reading and I’m queasy. But driving, I’m invariably fine. I’m not sure I’ve ever realised.

    I got sick on a yacht and wanted to die. No one else got sick at all.

    I was scrubbed off Navy flight screening when I bounced a CAP-10 aerobatic trainer down the runway doing circuits with a mouthful of vomit. I never felt in control, though.

    I was wondering whether it’s the illusion of control or actually being in control that helps? If it’s the former, a passenger could pretend to drive?

    I know it’s psychological in part but I even get motion sick in my apartment (33rd floor). I’ll feel queasy first and only realise the building is swaying after .

  8. smrnda says

    The only encounter I had with carsickness was a little essay we read in school, and the teacher was astonished that none of the kids knew about nor had ever heard the term ‘car-sick.’ Was this a bigger issue before people drove around a lot? Are there any studies of age and car sickness?

    And @hyphenman – I buy the idea about the horizon. I’ve lived in large cities my entire life which tend (most of the time) to be fairly level. On a trip through a rural, hilly area I found myself dizzy, and I kept thinking “where is the horizon?” Just the fact that the land wasn’t really level – I couldn’t look down a street (no streets even) and see an endless flat expanse of concrete. Later on a train trip, I found I had no problem with flat areas, though the lack of buildings was a bit of a shock.

  9. Jenora Feuer says

    The bit about the conflict between the eye and the inner ear was what I was told, by people I used to work with who had also done work on spacesickness with astronauts. (Some of them had worked on the experiments that went into the Neurolab testing on STS-90.)

    Added to that was the same comment as rq mentioned above, that the suspected reason was that several toxins produce similar confusion with the inner ear, and thus emptying the stomach of possible toxins is the survival trait reaction to that set of circumstances.

  10. Brucee says

    @10, when I was a kid, I only felt carsick on mountain roads with sharp curves when I couldn’t see them coming. Driving around town on straight roads, or on highways with gently engineered curves gave me no preparation for this.

    Also, I noticed that there are two kinds of roller coasters, to me. The difference is the angle they hold you when you go through the curve. Coasters where you are upright with respect to the centrifugal force of the motion gave me no problem. But coasters which chose other angles gave me stomach aches, such as if it held me upright with respect to gravity instead. This has little to do with cars, but shows how there are many factors at work.

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