'Seeing' Vehicle Could Help Tired Shift Workers Get Home Safely

18/03/2016 10:45 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Stressed woman driver - transportation concept.

As Australia marks World Sleep Day, a high-tech car that monitors drivers' brain activity is the latest tool scientists hope could help tired shift workers get home safe and combat fatigue-related death and injury on the road.

Fatigue is the cause of about 25,000 road injuries each year and costs the nation around $3 billion annually, making it one of the big killers on the road along with speeding and drink driving.

Fatigue also impacts productivity and general health.

One group at especially high risk from fatigue is shift workers, who make up 16 percent of the workforce but account for 20 percent of all road fatalities.

That's where the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Alertness, Safety and Productivity's "Seeing Machines Vehicle" comes in. It aims to boost shift workers' chances of getting home safe by giving scientists a window into how fatigue impacts drivers' brains.

The vehicle, which employs cutting-edge tech developed by Australian scientists, monitors steering behaviour and eye closures to predict when a fatigue-related accident is likely to occur.

The technology is mounted on the vehicle's dashboard and tracks the movement of a person’s eyes, face, head, and facial expressions to pick up when a driver is getting drowsy, according to Seeing Machines.

Twenty shift workers will be monitored in the study as they drive to and from work in the "instrumented car".

Sleep Health Foundation chairman David Hillman said real-world data sourced from the specced-up car was crucial to combat driver fatigue.

"With so many ill effects it's absolutely imperative that we develop new ways to better understand what is happening inside the brains and bodies of our shift workers and use this technology to lessen the burden on them," he said.

CRC project leader Tracey Sletten said the research was especially important because some workers, like those in healthcare, were particularly at risk.

"The impact of shift work on the sleep, alertness, productivity and safety of these healthcare workers is likely to be significant but we're also hoping to discover some factors that make it harder on some staff than on others," Sletten said.

"If we were able to recommend specific types of shifts with the aid of tools like specialised 'alerting' lights used at specific times then we could make shift work a whole lot healthier, safer and more productive for many workers."

Being fatigued makes drivers less alert to what's happening on the road and less able to react quickly and safely if a dangerous situation arises, Flinders University warns.

It points to lack of quality sleep and driving at times when you would normally be asleep, like the very early morning, as key causes of fatigue.

Signs of driver fatigue include difficulty in keeping your eyes open, constant yawning, drifting in the lane, delayed reactions, loss of concentration and fluctuations in driving speed.

Seeing Machines chief scientist Mike Lenne said the new car-based research represented a "world-first analysis of driver behaviour when drowsy".

The research announcement coincides with World Sleep Day, an international day of action on the prevention and management of sleep disorders.

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