Ford Motor Company researchers have encouraged more than 20 drivers to fall asleep at the wheel - all in the interest of improving vehicle safety.
A United States-based team researching driver drowsiness and accident avoidance is using Ford's VIRTTEX driving simulator for the ongoing study. VIRTTEX stands for VIRtual Test Track EXperiment. Ford is the only North American automaker with a full-motion-based driving simulator like VIRTTEX and findings will be used to develop new safety technology.
UK road safety campaigners RoadSafe welcomed the study. Director Adrian Walsh said at least 20 per cent of accidents on major, non urban roads were due to tiredness. "Tired drivers kill more people than drink drivers," he said. "At least 40,000 serious injuries and nearly 3,500 deaths occurred on our roads in 2002 with drowsiness as the principal cause." Roadsafe is a partnership of motor industry companies with the aim of promoting safer road use.
"Driver fatigue and falling asleep while driving is a deadly problem," said Jeff Greenberg, Ford safety research technical specialist and manager of the VIRTTEX laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan.
"Our goal is to understand these incidents better and investigate whether new technologies could be developed to detect this situation and help prevent it from happening."
A group of 24 men and women has been selected as test drivers, ranging in ages from 21 to 70. They stay up all night before their test date and consume no caffeine after 6pm the preceding evening. A sensor placed on a watchstrap is worn the day before the test to verify that volunteers do not sleep.
Once in the VIRTTEX chamber, the volunteers drive for up to three hours on a simulated darkened country road. An in-car camera monitors the driver's face for eye movement. A computer calculates the percentage of eye closed versus eye open - to sense if the driver is falling asleep.
All 24 tests are still to be completed but Jeff's early observations noted differences between how drivers fall asleep at the wheel. "Some begin to nod their head while others are completely still. They then lapse into 'micro sleep' lasting a matter of seconds but potentially deadly at 70mph."
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