Originally created 04/12/06

Fatigue warning devices can help truckers avoid accidents



PITTSBURGH - A new fatigue-warning device could help truckers avoid accidents by tracking how often they blink and how long their eyes stay shut, even as it raises privacy questions concerning what might happen to that data.

The device is about the size and shape of a Web cam. It is mounted on the dashboard, draws power from the truck's cigarette lighter and uses infrared technology to monitor blinking.

The more a driver blinks and the longer the driver's eyes are closed, the more the device beeps - one beep per second the eye is closed. With enough beeping, the trucker knows it's time to pull over.

"Once a person gets drowsy behind the wheel, there's nothing you can do about it but stop and get rest," said its designer, former Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Grace. "A nap and a cup of coffee can do wonders."

Fatigue plays a role in 13 percent of all truck-related crashes, according to a March report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The government estimates about 15,000 people are killed each year in fatigue-related accidents involving cars, trucks or other motor vehicles.

Other driver-fatigue monitors are already on the market. SleepWatch, developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, is strapped to a driver's wrist like a watch, monitoring rest and activity patterns. Another, called SafeTRAC from AssistWare Technology Inc., detects whether the truck is staying within its lane.

But Mr. Grace said truckers don't like to wear monitoring devices. He also believes his machine can detect fatigue more quickly than most lane-tracking devices because eyes tend to close before a driver starts swerving.

Nonetheless, some truckers have found driver monitors such as Mr. Grace's and SleepWatch too invasive because they track the drivers, not their trucks, said David Dinges, a University of Pennsylvania sleep researcher who studied Mr. Grace's unit and other warning devices for the federal government.

The technology is good but lane trackers are more reliable and give fewer false alerts when, for example, drivers look away from the road to fix their mirrors, Mr. Dinges said.

He also said some drivers have concerns about who owns the data collected by fatigue-monitoring devices, an issue important in matters of litigation and discipline.

"There are unresolved legal issues about who has access to such data," he said. "The police? The company? Just the driver? We need to have a wider cultural debate."

The American Trucking Association, a trade group representing trucking firms, believes fatigue-monitoring devices might be a good idea, within limits.

"If these devices help keep drivers alert, they're welcome," said Mike Russell, a spokesman for the group. "But if they're mandatory, that's another question."

Mr. Russell said no amount of equipment can make a bad driver good.

Mr. Grace's basic warning device costs $850, and one that also records data sells for $1,000. It is currently sold only directly from his company, Attention Technologies Inc.

Current models are effective only at night and aimed primarily at customers in the trucking industry. Mr. Grace said he hopes to eventually develop a version that is effective during the day and available to the general public.

Several North American trucking companies, including Pitt Ohio Express LLC, and some South African mining companies, including the De Beers Group, are evaluating the devices.

Sean Flynn, a hazardous materials trucker for Coraopolis-based MC Tank Transport Inc., said he once did a series of runs that left him without sleep for almost 32 hours.

"I was awake, but I was not functioning particularly well," he said.

Mr. Flynn said drivers might use a device such as Mr. Grace's, but only if they could be sure the data it recorded wasn't turned over to their employers.