Driver drowsiness detection holds promise of saving lives
What’s the best way to stop a driver from falling asleep at the wheel? Driver judgment remains the most important factor, but new research shows that steering data may be used to create an early warning system in cars.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes per year, resulting in 1,550 deaths. The top three contributing factors in these crashes are:
Adequate sleep — Anyone who operates a vehicle without enough sleep is, in effect, driving drowsy.
Shift work — Those who work “graveyard” and others who, for work reasons, must drive between midnight and 6 a.m.
Sleep disorders — Those with unknown or untreated sleep apnea syndrome or narcolepsy are at higher risk for nodding off while driving.
Each of these factors are controlled by driver judgment, but there is one area of research – driver drowsiness detection – that has showed promise for warning drivers they may be driving while fatigued.
A 2012 study from Washington State University found that erratic steering patterns are a reliable indicator that the operator is driving while drowsy. “Our research findings indicated that steering wheel variability provides a basis for developing a cost-effective and easy-to-install alternative technology,” the researchers concluded.
Similarly, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Iowa also published a paper in 2012 that details the use of steering wheel angle data for detecting drowsiness-related lane departures.
In essence, these detection techniques are an in-car version of rumble strips, the ribbons of textured pavement on the shoulders of highways that produce a loud rumble when vehicle tires cross them. Many of those surveyed in a Harvard School of Public Health study described rumble strips as lifesavers that brought them out of partial sleep or highway hypnosis before their vehicles left the road completely and crashed.
But the Harvard researchers noted that the drivers often failed to accept the most important reality of hitting rumble strips: if they did it once, they may do it again. In other words, a driver who is jolted awake by a rumble strip needs to take more lasting countermeasures than simply correcting and returning to his/her lane.
If you get drowsy while driving, it is best to stop driving and rest, if even for a short time. With or without an in-car warning system, there is simply no better method to avoid becoming a part of drowsy driving statistics. The ideal, of course, is to avoid sleep deprivation to begin with, but even as little as 20 minutes of sleep on the side of the road can be the difference between life and death.
The next most effective countermeasure to fatigued driving is caffeine. It doesn’t matter the form (coffee, caffeinated drinks, tablets), the equivalent of two cups of coffee have been found to make a drowsy driver safer.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that brief exercise works, nor does it help to open the windows or turn up the radio.