Drug and alcohol testing might be the norm for road users, but new eye-tracking technology could soon be used to determine whether drivers are too tired to get behind the wheel, Australian researchers say.
A study led by Monash University assessed the crash risk of 20 hospital shift workers by studying their eye movements through an in-car device fitted on the steering wheel.
The technology, developed by Australian tech firm Seeing Machines, used a driver-facing camera to run a four-minute pre-drive test to measure blinking patterns and monitor alertness levels.
Lead researcher Megan Mulhall said drowsy driving was a major concern, with about 20 per cent of all vehicle crashes sleep-related.
“It is a big problem, especially in the shift work population who are especially vulnerable,” Ms Mulhall said.
“Our research found that although it’s in the early stages, we can predict from a pre-drive test subsequent drowsy driving impairment.”
Data shows drowsy driving a major killer
Data from Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads showed there had been 16 deaths and 129 hospitalisations from fatigue-related crashes in the first half of 2018.
In 2017, 23 people were killed and 405 people were taken to hospital in accidents attributed to driver fatigue.
Ms Mulhall said drowsy driving was one of the only causes of road accidents which wasn’t tested for or monitored.
“We have speed cameras to monitor speeding and we have blood-alcohol concentration to monitor alcohol [consumption] but drowsy driving is one of the last major causes that we don’t have an intervention for,” she said.
“One of the main solutions that’s come through previous research is using ocular measures to both monitor and predict sleep-related driving impairment.”
Although the technology was only tested on a small sample of shift-working doctors and nurses, researchers are hopeful the already developed technology could have wide-ranging implications.
“This study focused on the commute to and from work, which can be looked at broadly in many shift-working populations – not just healthcare but any industry that uses shift work, such as hospitality and mining,” Ms Mulhall said.
“Our study was the first to look at it as a pre-drive assessment, so whether … before you start driving and put yourself at risk, are you safe to drive?”
Ms Mullhall said while the findings were promising, more research was needed to determine the broader applications of a pre-drive fatigue test.
RACQ’s head of technical and safety policy, Steve Spalding, said similar mechanisms were being used in the heavy vehicle industry, where fatigue management is a major issue.
“This is a very valuable technology — we’re seeing the technology used in trucks, it is starting to appear in some of the more premium brands,” Mr Spalding said.
“It is always good to build in new technologies that can make the road safe, whether that’s about monitoring the driver or assisting the driver to stay in control.
“But it’s also important to recognise that we as drivers primarily own the responsibility to make sure that we are in a fit state to drive.”