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Published: Thursday, 5/26/2011

Crash figures drive creation of dashboard wake-up call

BY JOHN R. QUAIN
NEW YORK TIMES

With summer approaching, some drivers will be pushing their endurance behind the wheel to the limit.

Testing your stamina on the highway -- perhaps so you can make it to the family vacation spot in one shot -- can be a deadly practice. Fatigued drivers cause more than 100,000 crashes a year in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, resulting in roughly 1,550 deaths. Most drivers cannot judge when they are on the verge of slumber or have seriously compromised reaction times.

Automakers and independent electronics companies are applying technology to this problem, with solutions ranging from simple head-position monitors to integrated sensor systems.

Most of the high-tech solutions intended to address the problem have focused on looking for clues that the driver is about to fall asleep. The simplest devices cost less than $10 and hook over a driver's ear. Whenever the wearer's head dips forward, the unit vibrates or blares a loud wake-up call.

While some users may find the low-cost gadgets reassuring, their warnings may come too late. By the time a driver's head nods, the car may be off the road.

More sophisticated systems introduced in recent years take advantage of computers and cameras built into cars. Mercedes-Benz, for instance, experimented with interior cameras that scanned the driver's eyes for signs of drowsiness. But the company found eye-monitoring software stymied by challenges like sunglasses -- people don't fall asleep only at night -- and not entirely reliable.

In its stead are other systems designed to take advantage of existing electronics. Mercedes calls its version Attention Assist, which is standard in E-Class and CL-Class cars. The program monitors the driver's steering input at the beginning of a trip and then looks for erratic changes, a sign that the driver is tiring. A warning sounds, accompanied by a visual reproach: "Time for a Rest?"

The system in the Volvo XC60 operates on a slightly different principle, monitoring lane markers and looking for "micro corrections" in the steering that inattentive drivers tend to make. However, some drivers have found these systems too sensitive and turn them off to silence the beeps.

The makers of the $179 Anti Sleep Pilot have taken a simpler and quite different approach. This device requires regular input from drivers to ensure they are alert. Placed on the dashboard, the Oreo-size Anti Sleep Pilot has a motion detector, flashing lights, and an audible alarm. IPhone users can instead buy a $19.99 app that mirrors most features of the standalone model.

The touch-sensitive device has a line of ascending lights that indicate the risk of falling asleep, which is determined by answering a variety of questions (age, type of driving you do, sleeping habits, etc.) covering 26 fatigue factors. The driver sets the risk number on the device; it then calculates a safe driving time before a break is needed.

At the beginning of a trip, its prompt is a mild-mannered chirp, which the driver quells by touching the device. The chimes may start at 15-minute intervals, for example, and gradually increase in frequency depending on the initial fatigue settings and the response time to each beep. The more fatigued it senses a driver is, the more often it will beep. When it determines a rest break is needed, a loud alarm sounds and the lights go red.



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