Truckers Take Fatigue Monitoring Device for Test Drive

April 11, 2006

Paul Chapman remembers an accident he saw one night a few years ago while driving through the Allegheny Mountains. A truck, without braking, crashed as it missed the entrance to a tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The driver died.

“It’s a straightaway, it’s the middle of the night, and people just wreck,” said Chapman, 48, a veteran trucker who does night runs for Pitt Ohio Express. “There’s no obvious reason for it. Generally in an accident like that someone either had a heart attack or fell asleep.”

Fatigue plays a role in 13 percent of all truck crashes, according to a March report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and the government estimates about 15,000 people are killed each year in fatigue-related accidents involving cars, trucks or other motor vehicles.

Now, Chapman is helping test a new warning device that could help truckers avoid disaster by tracking how often they blink and how long their eyes stay shut — if they would be willing to accept such monitoring, which an independent researcher questions. What may happen to the data is a cause for concern for truckers.

The device, designed by former Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Grace, is about the size and shape of a Web cam. It is mounted on the dashboard, powered by the truck’s cigarette lighter, and uses infrared technology to monitor blinking.

As the driver’s blinking increases — and the duration the driver’s eyes are closed increases — the device beeps. It keeps beeping for each second the driver’s eyes close, alerting the trucker that it’s time to pull over.

“Once a person gets drowsy behind the wheel, there’s nothing you can do about it but stop and get rest,” Grace said. “A nap and a cup of coffee can do wonders.”

Other driver-fatigue monitors are already on the market. SleepWatch, developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, is strapped to a driver’s wrist like a watch, monitoring his rest and activity patterns. Another, called SafeTRAC, detects whether the truck is staying within its lane.

Grace said truckers don’t like to wear monitoring devices and that his machine detects fatigue quicker than most lane-tracking devices.

But David Dinges, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studied Grace’s unit and other warning devices for the federal government, said some truckers found the blinking monitor to be too invasive because it tracked them, not their trucks. The technology is good but lane trackers are more reliable and give fewer false alerts when, for example, a driver looks away from the road to fix his mirrors, he said.

Dinges also said the issue of who owns the data collected by fatigue-monitoring devices is an issue for some drivers.

“There are unresolved legal issues about who has access to such data,” he said. “The police? The company? Just the driver? We need to have a wider cultural debate.”

The American Truckers Association, a trade group representing trucking firms, believes fatigue-monitoring devices might be a good idea, within limits.

“If these devices help keep drivers alert, they’re welcome,” said Mike Russell, a spokesman for the group. “But if they’re mandatory, that’s another question.”

Russell said no amount of equipment can make a bad driver good.

During his research, Grace said he watched video footage of a driver who fell asleep at the wheel for more than 30 seconds — or about a half mile — while driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The trucker later recalled closing his eyes for only a second or two, Grace said.

Grace’s basic warning device costs $850. A version that also records the gathered data sells for $1,000.

Current models, not yet available at retail outlets, are effective only at night and aimed primarily at customers in the trucking industry. Grace said he hopes to use revenue earned from the trucking industry to one day produce a model that is effective during the day and available to the general public.

The device is being tested by several North American trucking companies, including Pitt Ohio Express, as well as some South African mining companies, including the De Beers Group, Grace said.

Grace said his firm, Attention Technologies, is hoping it can sell 1,000 units this year. He said it would need to sell 2,000 to 3,000 annually to break even.

Sean Flynn, a hazardous materials trucker for Coraopolis-based MC Tank Transport Inc., said he once did a series of runs that left him without sleep for almost 32 hours.

“I was awake, but I was not functioning particularly well,” he said.

Flynn said drivers might use a device like Grace’s, but only if they could be sure the data it recorded wasn’t turned over to their employers.

“It boils down to, ‘Do you want to have that in your vehicle?”’ he said. “For some guys, it’s an invasion of privacy.”

Attention Technologies Inc.:

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:

American Truckers Associations:

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