A New Year’s Eve app to fight drowsy driv­ing

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Vir­ginia Postrel Vir­ginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View colum­nist.

Drunken driv­ers won’t be the only rev­el­ers pos­ing a haz­ard on the roads on New Year’s Eve. Peo­ple who’ve stayed up past their bed­time can also be dan­ger­ous be­hind the wheel.

If you get up at 6 a.m. on New Year’s Eve and hit the road an hour after the clock tolls mid­night, you’ll be up for 19 hours straight. No mat­ter when you went to bed, that means you’ve slept only five hours in the past 24, mak­ing you as good as drunk, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by the AAA Foun­da­tion for Traf­fic Safety.

Re­searcher Brian Tefft ex­am­ined records for more than 7,000 driv­ers in­volved in about 4,500 crashes se­ri­ous enough to re­quire tow­ing and emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vices. In about half the cases, in­ves­ti­ga­tors deemed the driv­ers at fault. The other half served as a con­trol group.

The study found that “driv­ers who have slept for be­tween 4 and 5 hours in the past 24 hours have 4.3 times the crash rate of driv­ers who have slept for 7 hours or more.” That’s a risk about the same as hav­ing a blood al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion at or slightly above the U.S. le­gal limit of 0.08 per­cent. “The in­crease in crash rate as­so­ci­ated with driv­ing after less than 4 hours of sleep,” the study con­cluded, “is much greater.”

That’s con­sis­tent with re­sults from lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ments. Given com­puter tests of hand­eye co­or­di­na­tion, peo­ple who’d been up for a rel­a­tively mod­est 17 hours straight did about as well as they did with a blood al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion of 0.05 per­cent.

If any­thing, the AAA Foun­da­tion study un­der­es­ti­mated the risk of driv­ing while drowsy be­cause it didn’t in­clude crashes that hap­pened be­tween mid­night and 6 a.m., when sleep de­pri­va­tion has the great­est ef­fect on at­ten­tion and per­for­mance.

Don’t ex­pect po­lice check­points to start test­ing drowsy driv­ers. But thanks to de­mand from the truck­ing busi­ness, wear­able tech­nolo­gies are al­ready mon­i­tor­ing driver alert­ness. It won’t be long be­fore con­sci­en­tious con­sumers can buy them as well.

I’ve writ­ten pre­vi­ously about the caps and hel­mets from Bris­bane, Aus­tralia-based SmartCap Tech­nolo­gies, that track brain waves us­ing sen­sors that mea­sure mi­cro­volts of elec­tric­ity on the wearer’s fore­head. Maven Ma­chines, a Pitts­burgh­based startup, takes a more be­hav­ioral ap­proach that might trans­late bet­ter to the con­sumer mar­ket and, along with track­ing alert­ness, im­prove driv­ing habits.

When a ve­hi­cle is in mo­tion, Maven’s sys­tem mon­i­tors head move­ment with the same Blue­tooth head­set the driver uses for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The head­set mea­sures how often the driver checks each mir­ror, de­tects down­ward glances that might in­di­cate tex­ting or other dis­trac­tions, and catches head bobs that in­di­cate mi­crosleep. A smart­phone app talks to the driver, pro­vid­ing both im­me­di­ate feed­back and pe­ri­odic re­ports on an over­all score.

The most im­por­tant fac­tor in that score is mir­ror checks. Ide­ally, driv­ers should check their mir­rors ev­ery five to eight sec­onds. That’s good de­fen­sive driv­ing and it also avoids the hyp­notic ef­fects of star­ing out the wind­shield at white lines. As fa­tigue sets in, driv­ers stop check­ing their mir­rors as often.

“You can have a score of 100 that’s per­fect for seven hours of your drive. The mo­ment you stop check­ing your mir­rors for about 90 sec­onds, your score is drop­ping be­low 30,” says Craig Camp­bell, Maven’s vice pres­i­dent for sales and mar­ket­ing. “If you are not check­ing your mir­ror for 90 sec­onds, you’re get­ting an alert for pos­si­ble fa­tigue or inat­ten­tion.”

Maven works pri­mar­ily with large fleets, which pay $80 to $100 to buy the head­set plus a monthly sub­scrip­tion fee some­where un­der $50 per driver. At the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show open­ing in Las Ve­gas next week, how­ever, Blue Tiger USA, which sells head­sets to in­di­vid­ual truck­ers, will show­case a prod­uct in­cor­po­rat­ing Maven’s tech­nol­ogy. Maven has also de­vel­oped a pro­to­type in-ear head­set with more con­sumer ap­peal than the large, over-the-head rigs fa­vored by long-haul truck­ers. That prod­uct will be tar­geted at de­liv­ery driv­ers who are fre­quently in and out of their trucks. But, says Camp­bell, “It’s not a far step to see: What do you give the 16-year-old girl who has ev­ery­thing?”

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