NHTSA chief vows crackdown on drowsy driving

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the auto safety agency is launching an effort to crackdown on drowsy driving, an issue that accounts for a significant percentage of U.S. traffic deaths.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a speech in Chicago on Monday that the agency needs better data to measure the problem and wants to find ways to boost awareness and crackdowns of the unsafe driving behavior. Rosekind is a former NASA scientist and expert on human fatigue who previously was a member at the National Transportation Safety Board.

He said NHTSA will work closely with states to learn what legal and enforcement strategies are most effective, beginning by looking at the impact in the handful of states that have passed laws specifically targeting drowsy or fatigued driving.

“We’re going to develop strategies specifically targeting populations especially vulnerable to drowsy driving,” Rosekind said, according to a copy of his remarks distributed by his office. “And we’re going to comprehensively examine the role that driver aids, in the car and outside of it, can play — everything from high-tech solutions like computer algorithms that detect when you’re getting sleepy behind the wheel, to old standbys like rumble strips on the road.”

He said NHTSA is going to begin developing and testing public awareness campaign techniques.

NHTSA said in a 2011 study that drowsy driving was involved in 2.2 percent to 2.6 percent of total fatal crashes from 2005-2009 — or at least 1,000 deaths a year on average. At least 72,000 drowsy crashes involving injuries or property damage were reported annually.

One big problem is data. NHTSA notes that unlike alcohol-related crashes, no blood, breath, or other measurable test is available to measure sleepiness at the crash site. But some factors are often present: the crash occurs late at night, early morning or midafternoon, the crash is likely to be serious and often involves a single vehicle leaving the roadway. Sleep-related crashes often occur on high-speed roads with a single driver that doesn’t attempt to avoid a crash.

Those ages 16-29 — especially men — are most at risk, as are shift workers who work at night or work long or irregular hours, and those with untreated sleep disorders.

Automakers have looked at ways to alert drivers who are about to fall asleep.

Daimler AG introduced “attention assist” in 2013 Mercedes-Benz S and E Class cars. The system observes driver behavior and produces an individual driver profile that is continuously compared with current sensor data. A sensor allows precise monitoring of the steering wheel movements.

If the system thinks a driver is about to fall asleep, it sounds an alarm and flashes the warning: “ATTENTION ASSIST: Break!”

Volvo has conducted research on facial recognition software using sensors and LEDs that shine infrared light on the driver’s face to see if drivers are falling asleep. It also uses head position and angle to predict if a driver will fall asleep.