May 1, 2008 Human factors researchers created a virtual reality environment in order to obtain data on the effects of driving while fatigued. They found that tired drivers alter their steering patterns, from smooth to a zigzag pattern of quick turns left and right. The researchers are developing a system to sense this hazardous steering behavior and warn weary drivers.
It's estimated that driver fatigue causes 100,000 crashes each year. Truckers often work more than 50 hours a week and can legally drive for up to eleven hours non-stop. With extra-long hours on the highway, exhaustion is a big concern. Now, virtual reality is being used to help make roads safer.
Trucking is big business, with many late, long hours on highways. At the first sign of drowsiness, truck driver Mel Robinson doesn't waste time pulling over. "If I start really feeling tired, I just pull into a safe place where I can pull off the side of the road," Robinson told Ivanhoe.
But not all tired truckers are as safe. Driver fatigue causes 40-percent of commercial truck accidents. Now, to help reduce accidents, mechanical engineers are using virtual reality to study drowsy drivers. "The purpose of the drowsy driver study that we had was to come up with unobtrusive methods of detecting drowsiness while people drive," Azim Eskanarian, Ph.D., a mechanical engineer at the National Crash and Analysis Center in Ashburn, Va., told Ivanhoe.
Drivers deprived of sleep drive on a simulated highway. Computers record driver behavior. Researchers have found when drivers feel sleepy, their steering patterns change -- quickly steering to the left and right in a wiggling pattern. "When you're tired, perhaps your reactions are slower and as you go off the road, you tend to correct the car more, and that correction can be captured," Dr. Eskanarian explained.
Researchers are developing a system that senses hazardous steering behavior and alerts drivers to wake up. "That warning could be an audio warning, it could be visual signals, or lighting that would come in the instrument panel," Dr. Eskanarian said. Helping you stay awake and stay safe.
The new hazardous steering detection technology will be available in about two years. In tests, a drowsy driver alerting system successfully predicted driver sleepiness with more than 90-percent accuracy.
THE EXPERIMENT: Researchers asked their subjects to deprive themselves of sleep, and then drive on a simulated highway while computers recorded the driver's behavior. The researchers found that being sleepy alters a driver's steering pattern. When tired, drivers quickly steer to the left and right in a wiggling pattern, rather than making smooth adjustments to maintain a straight course.
WAKE UP! STOP THE CAR! The researchers are developing a system to detect erratic or hazardous steering behavior, which should be available in about two years. During the experiment, their system successfully detected driver sleepiness with better than ninety percent accuracy. They may use audio alarms, visual signals, or a combination to grab the attention of a weary driver.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.