Why do we hold our breath in tunnels?

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Ever since I was a little boy I’ve held my breath when entering a tunnel by car, not once did I question this behavior. Until I was driving with some friends and we drove through a tunnel. You see some of my friends were from different parts of America others from overseas, but all of them played the exact same tunnel game but their tunnel rules were slightly different. In the version of the game I played the rules were the following:

  1. Hold your breath for the duration of the tunnel from entering to exiting
  2. Make a wish while holding breath
  3. If condition 1-2 are met then your wish will come true

Their version of the game lacked the make a wish rule and instead had “If you don’t hold your breath you will die”. Growing up this was just another one of those games you played while driving , it was a childhood superstitions that all kids took part in. But where and when did this game evolve and spread?

This superstition being as widespread and known as it is actually didn’t show up in the Cassell’s Dictionary of Superstitions nor The Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions . So we have to approach the reasoning for this superstition from an educated guess standpoint. We know the following about tunnels, they’re dark, lonely and scary places. The reason they’re scary is because they can literally collapse at anytime and as humans we love simulating impending doom. Stack a pile of blocks to shoulder level and the first thing you’ll think about is how it looks when it collapses. This trait along with the history we know about tunnel building makes for some interesting connections. Railroad companies for all the good they’ve done modern civilization did a lot of wrong to the people they employed to construct the railway systems. In the early days of tunnel construction many people died, tunnel collapses and accidental deaths were too common. Eventually the railway workers and their families/communities will attempt to make reason out of the unreasonable. Whenever you mix one too many unexplained deaths and pressure on the human psyche you get superstition.

Now to comeback to the story about my friends and I, recall the difference in our versions of the tunnel game. After looking at the historical improvement of tunnels and therefore lack of tunnel collapses in America. I can then conclude the logic behind my version of the game becoming less ominous then my friends. The area that most of my friends were originally from is Southern America, where tunnel collapses are unfortunately still a common cause of accidental death. So you could say that in Northern America my superstition was distilled somewhat due to safer tunnels. Safer tunnels created a version of the game in which you didn’t play to live or die but rather to get a wish. So the next time you find yourself driving and entering a tunnel hold your breathe. 

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