A New Year's Eve App to Fight Drowsy Driving

Bloomberg View , December 30, 2016

Drunk drivers won’t be the only revelers posing a hazard on the roads on New Year’s Eve. People who’ve stayed up past their bedtime can also be dangerous behind the wheel.

If you get up at six in the morning on New Year’s Eve and hit the road an hour after the clock tolls midnight, you’ll be up for 19 hours straight. No matter when you went to bed, that means you’ve slept only five hours in the past 24, making you as good as drunk, according to a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Researcher Brian Tefft examined records for more than 7,000 drivers involved in about 4,500 crashes serious enough to require towing and emergency medical services. In about half the cases, investigators deemed the drivers at fault. The other half served as a control group.

The study found that “drivers who have slept for between 4 and 5 hours in the past 24 hours have 4.3 times the crash rate of drivers who have slept for 7 hours or more.” That’s a risk about the same as having a blood alcohol concentration at or slightly above the U.S. legal limit of 0.08 percent. “The increase in crash rate associated with driving after less than 4 hours of sleep,” the study concluded, “is much greater.”

That’s consistent with results from laboratory experiments. Given computer tests of hand-eye coordination, people who’d been up for a relatively modest 17 hours straight did about as well as they did with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent. If anything, the AAA Foundation study underestimated the risk of driving while drowsy because it didn’t include crashes that happened between midnight and 6 a.m., when sleep deprivation has the greatest effect on attention and performance.

Don’t expect police checkpoints to start testing drowsy drivers. But thanks to demand from the trucking business, wearable technologies are already monitoring driver alertness. It won’t be long before conscientious consumers can buy them as well.

I’ve written previously about the caps and helmets from Brisbane, Australia-based SmartCap Technologies, which track brain waves using sensors that measure microvolts of electricity on the wearer’s forehead. Maven Machines, a Pittsburgh-based startup, takes a more behavioral approach that might translate better to the consumer market and, along with tracking alertness, improve driving habits.

When a vehicle is in motion, Maven’s system monitors head movement with the same Bluetooth headset the driver uses for communication. The headset measures how often the driver checks each mirror, detects downward glances that might indicate texting or other distractions, and catches head bobs that indicate microsleep. A smartphone app talks to the driver, providing both immediate feedback and periodic reports on an overall score.

The most important factor in that score is mirror checks. Ideally, drivers should check their mirrors every five to eight seconds. That’s good defensive driving and it also avoids the hypnotic effects of staring out the windshield at white lines. As fatigue sets in, drivers stop checking their mirrors as often.

“You can have a score of 100 that’s perfect for seven hours of your drive. The moment you stop checking your mirrors for about 90 seconds, your score is dropping below 30,” says Craig Campbell, Maven’s vice president for sales and marketing. “If you are not checking your mirror for 90 seconds, you’re getting an alert for possible fatigue or inattention.”

Maven works primarily with large fleets, which pay $80 to $100 to buy the headset plus a monthly subscription fee somewhere under $50 per driver. At the Consumer Electronics Show opening in Las Vegas next week, however, Blue Tiger USA, which sells headsets to individual truckers, will showcase a product incorporating Maven’s technology. Maven has also developed a prototype in-ear headset with more consumer appeal than the large, over-the-head rigs favored by long-haul truckers. That product will be targeted at delivery drivers who are frequently in and out of their trucks.

But, says Campbell, “It’s not a far step to see: What do you give the 16-year-old girl who has everything?”