Accidents caused by sleepiness targeted

Ford, Volvo seeking preventive technologies

January 02, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DETROIT - Ford Motor Co. has launched a study it hopes will help it develop technologies to prevent accidents caused by sleepy drivers. The study is a joint effort between Ford in Dearborn, Mich., and Volvo scientists in Sweden.

New products would make their debut late in the decade.

"Our goal is to try to understand" the correlation between sleepiness and driving accidents, said Jeff Greenberg, staff technical specialist of safety research at Ford and manager of the VIRTTEX lab. "The study is going to test 24 people, and we have got about half of them done."

Every year, falling asleep while driving causes at least 100,000 automobile crashes, 40,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The administration says most of these crashes occur between midnight and 6 a.m., involve a single vehicle and a sober driver traveling alone. The car leaves the roadway without any attempt to avoid the crash.

The regulatory body says the figures underestimate the true impact of drowsiness because they do not count crashes involving daytime hours, multiple vehicles, alcohol, passengers or evasive maneuvers.

Ford built the VIRTTEX, short for Virtual Test Track Experiment, in 2000. In July 2002, the carmaker published its first major research findings on driving distractions that could cause accidents, such as the use of cell phones and navigation systems.

Ford began testing the impact of drowsiness in November, with the help of a full-motion driving simulator.

Test subjects are required to go 24 hours without sleep. Participants are not allowed to consume caffeine or any other stimulant after 6 p.m. and must wear a strap around their wrist that monitors whether they fall asleep.

Inside VIRTTEX, a vast white dome perched on spidery hydraulic legs, 11 feet off the laboratory floor, subjects settle into a Volvo for a 2 1/2 - to three-hour simulation of real-world driving - including sound, motion and a dark highway with little traffic.

With digital imaging, testers monitor the driver's eye movements to determine whether the driver is falling asleep. Various accessories such as sound and vibrations in the steering wheel awaken the driver and prevent lane changing or driving off the road.

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