Why Do You Hold Your Breath in a Tunnel? And Other Driving Superstitions

By: Dave Roos  | 
Cars driving in a tunnel
Do you hold your breath when you're driving through a tunnel? Rich Legg/Getty Images

Superstitions are hard to shake. After all, who doesn't feel a little luckier when they find a penny on the sidewalk (heads up, of course)? Superstitious rituals tend to be most powerful when there's underlying fear and anxiety involved. Would you brazenly walk under a ladder on Friday the 13th? A lot of people wouldn't.

Unsurprisingly, Americans have many superstitions when they drive. According to a recent national survey by the car insurance marketplace Netquote, holding your breath through tunnels is the most common driving superstition. That may make you wonder — why do people hold their breath in a tunnel?


Is the Superstition About Avoiding Bad Luck?

About 30 percent of American women and 35 percent of American men hold their breath while driving in tunnels, but what's the origin of this popular superstition? That's up for debate. Some drivers believe the act is about preventing bad luck. Others think a wish is granted when someone holds their breath all the way through a tunnel.

Possible origins include people believing that tunnel air could cure children with whooping cough — requiring others in the car to hold their breath — and that the practice helps counteract any changes in air pressure. Some people, on the other hand, think of it as a game for children on family road trips, not a superstition about the healing powers of tunnel air or anything of the sort.


Results of a study involving driving superstitions.

More Superstitions on the Road

Not breathing through tunnels isn't the only common superstition drivers and passengers have. For instance, the second-most popular is lifting feet when passing over a bridge or railroad tracks. Nearly a quarter of respondents hold their breath while driving past a cemetery. About the same amount have a good-luck item in their cars, like a rosary or rabbit's foot. And a significant percentage of people pray while driving through a yellow light — while not in the survey, others tap the roof of their car after successfully passing through.

"We were expecting superstitious practices on the road to be pretty uncommon, so it was surprising to discover that over one in five men and women drive with some sort of lucky charm in their vehicle," says Jason Hargraves, managing editor of NetQuote via email. Even if you don't subscribe to any superstitions on the road, you may have friends or family members who do. Superstitions are a common-practice part of the driving process for many people, after all.


Urban Legends

In another survey, Netquote asked drivers about their most common driving-related fears, including some classic urban legends. The biggest fear by far for both sexes is fake cops pulling people over. Nearly half of women and more than a third of men share this apprehension. While such crimes are extremely rare, they do happen, so drivers shouldn't hesitate to ask to see a police officer's identification if something doesn't feel right.

In general, women tend to have more fears while in the driver's seat than men. For example, more than twice as many female drivers (22.5 percent) are afraid of someone hiding in the back seat of the car as compared to men (11 percent). But slightly more men than women believe that car thieves jam coins into a door handle so that it stays open after the driver thinks he's locked it. Those scary stories we heard as children can certainly make an impression.