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Big Brother Behind The Wheel To Watch Drivers

Ergonomics Today | January 6 2005

How big of a problem is driver distraction? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTS) estimates that between 4,000 and 8,000 car accidents result each day in the United States because of a distracted driver. And everything from talking on a cell phone to eating, reading, turning up the radio or even putting on makeup are believed to contribute to the problem.

But one car manufacturer is looking at a way to help curb the distraction problem by helping drivers stay focused through a safety system that monitors the driver’s eye and head movements. According to ergonomists at Saab, it’s a safety enhancement that looks at what drivers are actually doing behind the wheel rather than what the drivers should be doing.

"There's no doubt increasing traffic densities and the growth of in-car 'infotainment' systems are putting an increasing workload on the driver," says Saab’s chief of ergonomics Arne Nabo, head of the project that will put a theoretical “Big Brother” behind the wheel to monitor driver distraction. "We at Saab, in common with other car manufacturers, have so far focused on managing information inputs for the driver in the safest possible way. Now we think it is time to take a rather less passive approach.”

Saab’s answer is a system which will monitor drivers via two miniature cameras fitted with infra-red lenses, looking for eye and head movement. If the driver’s gaze strays too far away from what Saab has deemed the “primary attention zone” – the central part of the windshield in front of the driver – a timer begins. If the driver’s focus doesn’t return to the primary attention zone within two seconds, a buzzer sounds. Still no response from the driver? A brake pulse is applied through the car’s ESP system.

It’s not just the driver that the new system will be paying attention to, either. In order to fit the task, environment and driver, the driving speed and traffic conditions will also be monitored. City driving has a wider attention zone, says Saab but lower speeds and a shorter time-buffer before the buzzer is triggered. Highway driving requires a narrower attention zone but accommodates higher rates of speed and a longer time-buffer before the buzzer is activated.

Additionally, says Saab, its monitoring system could also eventually be linked to a satellite navigation system to allow for zero-tolerance of inattentiveness in places like school zones.

Nabo notes that it’s common for people to take their eyes off the road while driving, but hopes that the new system will help prevent “cognitive tunneling,” where a driver gets too absorbed in a process unrelated to driving like following a map or finding a new CD. Currently no date has been released regarding when the system, which is still in development, will be available in vehicles.