April 8, 2004

Ford announces results of drowsy driving study

New York, New York – Ford announced today results of a comprehensive five month study into the deadly problem of drowsy driving, and gave a preview of new Volvo-developed safety technology to be introduced late in the decade.

Since November, more than 30 drivers have taken part in the development effort, where they literally fell asleep behind the wheel of the VIRTTEX driver simulator. VIRTTEX stands for VIRtual Test Track EXperiment. Ford is the only North American automaker with a full-motion-based driving simulator like VIRTTEX. It allows Ford researchers to test product features and driver behaviors safely in a controlled environment.

According to U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates, drowsiness accounts for about four percent of all fatal crashes – more than 1,500 deaths each year. It is a major cause of catastrophic accident and injury. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes annually – about 1.5 percent of all crashes – involve drowsiness and fatigue as a principal causal factor.

A total of 32 test subjects took part in the study (one each morning, up to four a week) starting Nov. 4, with the study concluding March 10. Ages of participants ranged from 24 to 69 years. A total of 12 men took part, and 20 women. Test participants were asked to stay up all night, the night before the test, and to take no caffeine after six p.m. that preceding evening. A sensor placed on a watchstrap is worn the day before the test to verify that the test subject does not fall asleep.

Early the following morning, after a sleepless night, the test subject is driven to the Ford Scientific Research Laboratories. At six a.m. the test subject enters the VIRTTEX simulator and then drives for up to three hours on a simulated darkened country road.

Starting the test, seven subjects were rated alert, 10 were moderately drowsy, and 15 were rated very drowsy. Three subjects drove off the road and “crashed.” Two subjects requested to have the experiment end. Observed behaviors in an effort to remain awake included: changing posture/fidgeting, singing, playing with the CD player (changing the song, turning up the volume), slapping their face, drinking water, and actively looking at the outside environment.

Although the test was designed to study the effects of warnings and not the differences between age groups — it is interesting to note that the youngest drivers did the worst in the test. The two youngest test subjects, a 24 and a 26 year old man, actually fell asleep and ran off the road.

It was middle age women between 45 and 60 years of age who did best – having the least problems, and fewest episodes of dozing behind the wheel.

The research indicated that falling asleep behind the wheel was episodic – it came in brief intervals during the drive. These “micro-sleeps” ranged in duration from a half second to ten seconds. The average time span was about two and a half seconds – before the driver would return to a baseline of consciousness until drifting back into the micro-sleep state again.

“When a vehicle is traveling at 70 miles per hour, you are covering more than 100 feet in just one second. If you are asleep, you are putting yourself and others on the highway at great peril,” Greenberg said. “Some participants who fell asleep at the wheel, when told that they were out for several seconds were shocked, and said it felt more like a fraction of a second.”

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