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What would roadside fatigue or drowsiness testing look like?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 by Dr Trefor Morgan

First, we had breath tests to test Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC).

Then, we had saliva swabs to test for illegal drugs.

Now, we could be seeing a test for drowsiness that completes the roadside test trifecta.

Roadside drowsiness testing has rapidly become a popular discussion topic across social media, due to a recent announcement that Victoria Police and the TAC would welcome this in their arsenal against road injuries and fatalities.

Roadside testing

The effects of drowsiness on our roads

In a world first, Victoria Police, and the Traffic Accident Commission (TAC) want to start roadside testing for drowsiness and fatigue driven by the high number of deaths caused by drowsy drivers.

Did you know that in Victoria, fatigue accounts for one-third of all traffic accidents every year? It kills 50 people a year, and seriously injures 300.


Pull over and take a power nap

Until now, the only real input from police and the TAC to non-professional drivers has been to advise them to pull over and take a power nap if they feel they were too drowsy to continue driving safely.

There are two major drawbacks to this.

First, police cannot enforce a power nap; they can simply advise.

Second, people cannot accurately self-diagnose their levels of drowsiness, thus rendering police advice above as potentially ineffective.

Besides, where does an individual draw the line in terms of level of drowsiness? Perhaps they are indeed entering the dangerous state of drowsiness however they diagnose themselves as being only “slightly” drowsy (rather than “very” drowsy) and therefore render themselves fit to continue driving.

Police have had no way to accurately determine a driver’s level of fatigue… until now.


Tracking eye speed and movements

Optalert’s system tracks eye movements, measuring the speed of the blink as well as how far the eyelid opens when a user blinks. 

The Transport Accident Commission’s (TAC) senior manager for road safety Samantha Cockfield says there are two key groups at risk from the dangers of drowsy driving: shift workers and mothers who are up throughout the night for their children and then up again early in the morning to prepare for the day.

Shift workers

There is no such thing as a typical schedule for a shift worker. From nurses and doctors to security guards and air traffic controllers, shift start and end times can vary. Working through the night takes a toll on our bodies as we struggle to fight against our natural circadian rhythm and it is during that drive home – after a shift – where shift workers are most at risk of a drowsiness-related road accident.

Parents

We know how challenging it is to have children, and combined with a full-time job, it can wreak havoc on our sleep and health. Those juggling parenting with their jobs can find themselves struggling to get adequate good quality sleep. Frequent overnight interruptions combined with early starts followed by a full day at work can leave us feeling fatigued. Behind the wheel, this could be deadly.


Drowsy driver fines

Currently for drink-driving and drug-related driving offences, penalties include fines, licence disqualification and even imprisonment.

The fine you receive depends on the severity of the offence, your age at the time of the offence, your current license type and previous offences.

Would the same principles be applied to those found to be driving while drowsy? Or would government legislature be required first, before issuing penalties?

Maggie’s Law

Maggie’s Law in the US state New Jersey is a great example of a state that has implemented government legislature against drowsy driving.

Maggie’s Law was one of the first laws in the world introduced to punish those found guilty of driving while fatigued or drowsy. The law was passed in 2003 and makes it illegal for an individual to knowingly drive a vehicle while impaired by sleep deprivation.


Challenges of roadside fatigue testing

In this report from 7 News Melbourne, Associate Professor Mark Howard from Austin Health expresses two main challenges of roadside fatigue testing:

A tool that provides a high level of accuracy

Optalert’s JDS solves this challenge as it can turn a “degree” or “amount” of drowsiness into a quantifiable score. The simple score on a scale of 0-10 quite simply puts a number on drowsiness.

Through years of extensive research and testing, Optalert has concluded

  • A score below 4.5 indicates a user is alert and less likely at risk of a fatigue-related accident
  • A score greater at 4.5 and less than 5 shows that the risk per minute slowly starts to increase
  • A score of 5 means the person has impaired performance the same way as a BAC of 0.05
  • A score more than 5 can impair performance at a rapid rate and places the driver at risk of a drowsy incident or micro sleep

  • The need for a tool that can work quickly at the roadside

    Accurate and real-time results quickly indicate whether a driver is at risk when he or she is behind the wheel.

    Through Optalert’s eagle INDUSTRIAL and eagle PORTABLE products, users, as well as monitoring staff, can instantly and in real-time see their own level of drowsiness while driving.

    The same principle would be applied to roadside testing: the user completing the test as well as the supervising police officer or industry regulator would be able to view in real-time a user’s level of fatigue.

    Waking up to a roadside test

    The difficulty in testing drivers has been with the very nature of being pulled over for a drowsiness test.

    Like a roadside breathalyser test, when a driver is asked to pull over to the curb by sirens, or a roadblock, the driver has a rush of adrenaline which temporarily ‘wakes’ the driver and could render the test ineffective.

    Optalert is however working on a solution which is not affected by this temporary stimulation and initial results are very encouraging.

    But how do drivers know when they are drowsy?

    If you have a glass of wine, you know your BAC will be greater than zero, and if you have many more than one glass, chances are you should not be getting behind the wheel.

    But with drowsiness, it is a bit more complex.

    People can sleep very badly but not be in danger of falling asleep the next day, or possibly they have one great night of sleep but have slept badly for the week preceding and they may be in danger of falling asleep.

    So in order for drowsiness to be legislated for non-professional drivers there would need to be a great deal of education and guidelines. It’s not just as easy as saying you know when you are tired, because you often don’t, and that is why our product isn’t just used when drivers think they need it; they have to use it all the time.

    Any repetitive task can put a person in danger of a drowsy incident because there are competing mechanisms; chemical build-up vs. mental activity.

    The road ahead

    We believe roadside drowsiness testing will happen in the not too distant future and we believe our solution will play an important role. Saving lives matters and given the statistics on drowsy-related injuries and fatalities, it can’t come soon enough.

    For more on Optalert’s products contact sales@optalert.com

    For more information about Optalert’s current research projects contact research@optalert.com 

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