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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2004

Asleep at the wheel

Millions of dollars are spent each year to prevent alcohol-related traffic accidents. States have passed laws prohibiting cell-phone use while driving. And though most of us ignore it, the danger is obvious of eating, reading, putting on makeup, adjusting the radio or CD player, dealing with children, or any of a dozen other activities, if done while driving a ton or more of steel down the highway at 50, 60, or 70 mph.

But what about people who doze off behind the wheel?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving is to blame for 1,500 deaths, 40,000 injuries, and 100,000 accidents each year.

In fact, more than one in three drivers in a 2002 NHTSA survey admitted having dozed off while driving at least once, a figure that likely is under-reported. And 55 percent of sleep-induced accidents involve drivers under 26 years old.

So far, only New Jersey has made it illegal to drive "knowingly fatigued." Also, new federal regulations limiting the time commercial truck drivers can spend on the road went into effect early this month, rules which regulators say could save 75 lives per year.

These are positive developments, but more can be done, and Ford researchers are working on it.

It seems the folks at Ford (or, more specifically, Ford's Volvo unit) are using a simulator to study what happens as drivers nod off and testing devices such as a beeping alarm, vibrations in the seat or steering wheel, and a red light projected onto the windshield to jolt them out of their stupor.

One of the most promising devices is the Lane Departure Module, which uses a camera and a computer to detect unintended lane drifting. While it cannot take over steering, this system can actually apply compensating movement to the wheel if an unintended lane shift is detected.

Whatever they come up with, it's likely to be installed in Volvos sold in Europe before it becomes available in vehicles sold in the United States.

Eventually, Ford hopes to be able to put this technology in even its lowest-priced cars, which often are bought by young drivers, the very group that is involved in more than half of all dozing-related crashes.

Obviously, the best solution to the problem of drowsy drivers is for people to recognize when they're tired and pull over. But the reality is that's not likely to happen any time soon.

In addition, it's possible that drivers may view anti-dozing technology as annoyingly intrusive and try to have it disconnected, just as they do with chiming, blinking seat-belt reminders.

Ford, however, is to be commended for being willing to take a gamble that appears, at least on the surface, to be motivated largely by the desire to make the roads a little bit safer.

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