Invention warns drivers of fatigue

By Brendan Manning, Teuila Fautai

A new device designed to prevent fatigue-related crashes has been dubbed a ''world first'' - but one Western Bay trucking company has already questioned whether the industry will buy into it.

The fatigue-detection device - a head-mounted prototype which uses sensors to detect drowsiness in drivers - is being developed by Canterbury University electrical engineering PhD student Simon Knopp.

''Lapses can have serious consequences. Truck drivers, pilots, and air traffic controllers, for instance, have to stay alert for long periods of time and risk causing fatalities if they don't,'' he said.

Mr Knopp's device detects such lapses and alerts a person before they have an accident. Multiple sensors are used to determine the person's state. A miniature camera looks at the eyes, and sensors measure brain activity and head movement.

''[Lapses] vary from microsleeps, where you essentially fall asleep for a moment, to sustained attention lapses.

''Most people have these lapses and often aren't aware they're having them.''

An Australian study of shorthaul day-shift drivers found that 45 per cent of drivers reported ''nodding off'' while  driving in the previous 12 months.

Fatigue was a factor in 42 Bay of Plenty crashes in the year to February and one fatality.

Thirty one people died nationally in fatigue-related crashes during the same period.

But Western Bay trucking company TD Haulage said the device would have to be a sturdy piece of equipment to withstand the rough New Zealand roads and gain acceptance by commercial drivers.

''The roads in this country are so rough. It's hard to get a lot of that technology into trucks . . . even keeping a GPS going is a real challenge,'' said a spokesman from the Mount Maunganui-based firm.

''It'll come down to exactly how well it works, how much it costs to install and for maintenance.''

AA road safety spokesman Mike Noon said crashes caused by fatigue happened regularly, both in cities and on long journeys. But it was difficult to determine if somebody crashed because they were tired, inattentive, or had fallen asleep.

''Why it doesn't get reported as being a real crash issue is because when you have a near miss, or when you have a crash, you immediately wake up and you're fully alert, the adrenaline goes off.

''It's quite often not ticked as a fatigue crash, it's picked as not driving to the conditions or driving too fast.''

Some car manufacturers are already introducing systems that attempt to monitor driver drowsiness, Mr Knopp said.

''By using data from multiple sensors, though, our device should be able to respond more quickly and more accurately than something that just uses a camera on a car's dashboard.

''We hope that one day this device will become a standard piece of safety equipment.''

- Bay of Plenty Times

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