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NHTSA to Crack Down on Drowsy Driving

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Drowsy-Driving-signThe federal government has launched an effort to crack down on drowsy driving, according to news reports. Mark Rosekind, the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), announced at a Chicago safety conference on Monday that the agency needs better data to measure the problem, as David Shepardson writes for The Detroit News. The NHTSA also seeks to alert the public to the dangers of drowsy driving, and to consider whether there should be more laws to help prevent drowsy driving, Jon Hilkevitch writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Drowsy driving does not get the attention that drunk and distracted driving receive, and yet it is the “third “D” of preventable accidents, officials said, as Hilkevitch writes. He quotes Rosekind as saying that although not everyone drinks, texts, or speeds, all drivers face the problem of a lack of sleep at some times. “And falling asleep at the wheel at 70 mph is a recipe for tragedy,” Rosekind said.

The data on drowsy driving is old and limited, Hilkevitch reports Rosekind as saying to him in a private interview with the Tribune. Rosekind said current estimates place the percentage of annual traffic deaths caused by driver fatigue or drowsiness at between 2% to 20%, Hilkevitch writes.

Rosekind, who is a scientist with an expertise in sleep and fatigue, said although there are Breathalyzers to indicate a driver is drunk, “We don’t have a fatigue-alyzer,” reports Hilkevitch. This blog wrote yesterday about a new device that can alert a driver when he or she is getting drowsy before the likelihood of an accident.

An algorithm that can predict when a driver will drift out of lane has been developed, Rosekind said, as Hilkevitch writes. NHTSA will thoroughly assess a wide range of driver aids that can help to prevent drowsy driving accidents, from algorithms to rumble strips on the road, Rosekind said at the Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities.

“Attention Assist,” a feature introduced in the 2013 Mercedes-Benz S and E Class cars, Shepardson writes, continuously compares a person’s typical driving behavior with current sensor data to determine when a driver is becoming drowsy. A sensor also precisely monitors steering wheel movements; and if the system finds that the driver is about to fall asleep, it sounds an alarm and flashes a warning, Shepardson writes.

Officials said police officers investigating crashes will need to be trained in how to find clues that the driver(s) were drowsy when the accidents occurred, Hilkevitch writes. According to experts, many drowsy driving crashes involve only one vehicle, in which the driver is alone, Hilkevitch writes. Another clue is that such accidents often leave no skid marks on the road, he adds.

NHTSA will also conduct a review of laws that a handful of states have enacted to prevent car accidents caused by drowsy driving, Rosekind said. One such example is New Jersey’s, in which a driver who has not slept in 24 hours is considered to be driving recklessly, in the same class as an impaired driver, Hilkevitch writes. And in Arkansas, fatigued driving can be prosecuted as negligent homicide when a driver involved in a fatal crash has not slept in 24 consecutive hours, Hilkevitch writes. “Studies have shown that, like alcohol intoxication, sleepiness slows reaction time, decreases awareness and impairs judgment,” Hilkevitch writes.

Image by Ken Lund

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