The informant explained this game they often play on road trips: “Whenever I go driving with my family, we all hold our breaths whenever we reach a tunnel. Though it often turns into a competition for them, it has become a tradition.”
Me: “When’s the first time you heard this game?”
Informant: “I don’t remember exactly… I just remember someone said, “There’s a tunnel, hold your breath!” and somehow we all started doing it. I think you were supposed to make a wish, but in the end we just saw who could last the longest! I remember my little brother would just puff out his cheeks so it looked like he was holding his breath when he was just breathing through his nose (laughs).”
Analysis: This game is common-practice, however it is hard to pinpoint the exact origin online. In the 1980s, it was thought that tunnel air would cure whopping cough, so mothers would bring their children to tunnels to cure them. In order to keep from contracting the respiratory disease, the people with the infected children would have to hold their breaths when accompanying them into the tunnel.
Another interpretation is that the air pressure may change when one goes through a tunnel at fast speeds, and holding your breath cures the pain in your ears. It’s is interesting that such a practice to prevent pain has developed into a superstition or game.
Annotation: This cure for whopping cough is mentioned in Arthur Beavan’s book “Tube, Tram, Train, Car” in the chapter about the London Railway.