Aaron Widmar
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Why Do People Hold Their Breath When Driving Through Tunnels?

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car driving through tunnel

Growing up, my family went on many road trips and had fun games we played in the car. But one thing I never learned until I made friends in college was holding your breath while driving through tunnels. The activity seemed odd to me, but I went along with it (as one does when in college).

For my friends, the act was purely competition, seeing who could last until exiting the tunnel. But is there a reason why people hold their breath in tunnels? Turns out, there are multiple reasons!

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Reasons Why People Hold Their Breath in Tunnels

The most commonly-stated reason why people hold their breath while travelling through tunnels is for good luck. A widespread belief is that if you hold your breath for the entire duration of the tunnel and make a wish, the wish will come true. This superstition is similar to wishes being granted by tossing coins, blowing out birthday candles, etc.

long road in tunnel drivingOn the flip side, others claim the superstition isn’t about bringing good luck but preventing bad luck. If you don’t hold your breath for the entire duration of the tunnel, you’re doing to die–either through a fateful event later or through the tunnel collapsing (then again, if you do hold it for too long, you might die that way too). It’s possible some people hold their breath out of fear, in hopes of making out of the tunnel without it collapsing.

Of course, you’ll find many other claims from people explaining why they or their family members hold their breath. Those giving a more rational explanation to the habit claim that the change in air pressure when travelling through a tunnel hurts the ears, and the pain is minimized by holding one’s breath. Still others claim that the air in tunnels is stagnant and unhealthy, and breathing it in is dangerous.

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One possible origin to the tradition is that people would bring their children with whooping cough to tunnels with the belief that the tunnel air would cure the cough–and in the process, the parent would have to hold his/her breath to avoid contracting the illness. This practice persisted well into the late twentieth century, even.

Another possible origin is that, due to the number of deaths from collapsed tunnels over the years–before the invention of automobiles–tunnels can be haunted by ghosts, and it’s common superstition not to breathe around ghosts (which is why people hold their breath when passing graveyards).

Regardless of the reason behind doing it, make sure you don’t participate while driving, especially if you don’t know how long the tunnel is. Doing so can make you lightheaded and cause an accident.

Source: Divine Caroline

  • Aaron WidmarSenior Editor

    Aaron is unashamed to be a native Clevelander and the proud driver of a 1995 Saturn SC-2 (knock on wood). He gleefully utilizes his background in theater, literature, and communication to dramatically recite his own articles to nearby youth. Mr. Widmar happily resides in Dayton, Ohio with his magnificent wife, Vicki, but is often on the road with her exploring new destinations. Aaron has high aspirations for his writing career but often gets distracted pondering the profound nature of the human condition and forgets what he was writing... See more articles by Aaron.