Swearing off snoozing

The problem of drivers asleep at the wheel is not new, nor is it confined to overtaxed truckers. In a mobile society that places a premium on how far people can go-go-go before they slip-slip-slip into sleep, it's no wonder everyone from harried commuters to vacationing motorists to longhaul truckers can recall moments of extremely rude awakening. those horrible split seconds when they snapped awake

The problem of drivers asleep at the wheel is not new, nor is it confined to overtaxed truckers. In a mobile society that places a premium on how far people can go-go-go before they slip-slip-slip into sleep, it's no wonder everyone from harried commuters to vacationing motorists to longhaul truckers can recall moments of extremely rude awakening…. those horrible split seconds when they snapped awake only to realize they had been asleep at the wheel of a moving motor vehicle.

What has been done to prevent drivers from nodding off has run the gamut from downing coffee to swallowing amphetamines. In between the practical and the illegal have been the laughable solutions.

As DaimlerChrysler (DC) points out in a recent house organ, High Tech Report, some of the most comical include the sensor placed behind a driver's ear that triggers an alarm as soon as the driver's head starts to nod. Other devices are out there that “beep” if the steering wheel has not moved in a set time period.

But, says Lars Galley, a driving behavior psychologist (yes, it has come to that!) on a DC research team based in Berlin-Marienfelde Germany, such devices usually warn a driver far too late.

According to DC, an effective solution for what its researchers call “fatigue recognition” would have to spot tiredness early on, yet not treat every unusual driver reaction as an indication of drowsiness. Otherwise, the gizmo will set off so many false alarms the driver will shut it off (or break it to bits).

An effective device should also be able to “intelligently influence” driver behavior by somehow convincing him to stop driving until refreshed.

“From the very beginning,” says Gotz Renner, head of the DC driver-fatigue research team, “we set up extremely strict criteria concerning the frequency of failed or false alarms in such a system. And we are taking great care to develop a human-machine interface that not only recognizes tiredness but also warns drivers in such a way that they will intuitively do the right thing.”

That sounds almost easy, and almost like a new product is about to be released. But, alas, they are not there yet. At this point in the game, the DC researchers report they believe no single parameter can be used to ascertain a driver's tiredness. Rather, they expect a number of measurements will have to come into play to design an effective warning device.

According to DC, engineers and psychologists work closely together on the research team because of an “all-too-human aspect” of the tired-driver issue.

“Psychological investigations have shown that as our tiredness increases, our readiness to make decisions decreases,” explains researcher Wolfgang Gottlieb. “For example, a driver who has already realized that he is in danger of falling asleep and has just seen a sign for a highway turnout might actually pass the exit lane before he can to decide whether or not to stop.”

Renner points to another part of the fatigue problem all too familiar here in the States. “Increasingly, highway service areas are so full of parked cars that truckers can't find any space to park. What should drivers do in situations like that, even if they're smart enough to pull off the road?”

Unfortunately, that is a question that can only be answered by pouring more money into high-tech solutions as well as bricks and mortar.

On the other hand, if there was real hours-of-service reform in this country there would be far fewer sleep-deprived truckers on the road.

Then we could just sell the anti-nod-off devices to four-wheelers — who will never get the message that sleep kills anyway.

Still, it's worth dreaming about. In bed.

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