Image: Volvo's Driver Alert Control system
Volvo's Driver Alert Control system uses a camera that watches the road ahead and looks for instances of the car wandering in the lane, or even crossing out of the lane.
updated 10/8/2009 8:57:24 AM ET 2009-10-08T12:57:24

The Department of Transportation’s recent conference on distracted driving drew considerable attention to the hazard posed by talking on the phone and texting while driving. By the government’s count, those activities were to blame for nearly 6,000 deaths last year.

That puts those actions on par with other forms of driver impairment, such as drunk driving and falling asleep at the wheel. While drunk driving attracts much more attention, drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes every year, with 1,550 fatalities and 71,000 injuries.

All of these concerns fall under the umbrella of “impaired driving,” a problem which carmakers are increasingly using technology to detect and counteract. Technology alone cannot solve this problem, but it can help, said David Champion, director of Consumer Reports’ auto test department.

Some of the useful aids include hands-free Bluetooth phones that save the driver from searching for and picking up a phone, along with lane departure warning systems that notify the oblivious phone talker that he just left a lane and is about to sideswipe a tractor-trailer.

The real solution is to outlaw routine distracted driving and to make driving while phoning and texting socially unacceptable — the way drunk driving went from being a funny embarrassment to a criminal offense, Champion said.

“If you go back 30 years, people who drove drunk were thought of as just a good ol’ boy,” he said. “Now the one thing that would work is having punitive penalties for people who are in an accident while texting or taking on a cell phone.”

But that will take time, and it will take even longer for drivers to change their behaviors. So the immediate solution is to build cars equipped to detect drivers who are impaired by whatever cause.

In some cases, the car’s systems might directly observe the driver, studying the face and eyes for indications of fatigue, distraction or inebriation. They might employ sensors that detect the presence of alcohol. Or they can simply observe the driver’s behavior, as the rest of us frequently do, to see if the car drifts out of its lane or is slow to react to situations, such as stopped traffic ahead.

No production vehicles yet detect drivers who are texting or drunk, but already some of them can detect symptoms of those conditions. The 2010 Toyota Prius and Lexus LS 600h, for example, features the advanced Pre-Collision System with Driver Attention Monitor.

The system uses radar to watch ahead for stopped cars and it if sees through its infrared driver monitoring camera that the driver isn’t looking forward, as would be the case when reading or writing a text message, it sounds a warning, flashes a red light and tugs on the driver’s seatbelt.

The Toyota/Lexus system doesn’t take action just because the driver isn’t looking at the road, as a more proactive, anti-texting device might. But it does issue a warning if an obstacle appears ahead and the computer thinks the driver hasn’t noticed. On the Prius, it's part of a $4,500 "advanced technology" add-on option.

The 2010 Mercedes E-Class sedan debuts the company’s Attention Assist system which detects a drowsy driver and sounds an alert before the driver reaches the dangerous “microsleep” phase, where they drift in and out of sleep. The car detects fatigue by noticing when the driver has trouble steering a precise course in the lane, making minor steering errors that are often corrected abruptly.

Mercedes developed Attention Assist through an in-depth analysis of 550 drivers to produce a reliable alert when drowsy driving is detected. The research identified 70 steering parameters the car’s computer can monitor as clues to the driver’s condition, such as the pattern of abrupt corrections. When it sees a problem, the car sounds an alert and displays a coffee mug icon on the instrument panel.

One would think that a drunk or distracted driver might exhibit similarly erratic steering problems as a sleepy driver, so it is possible that the Attention Assist system could also flag drivers impaired by those circumstances. But Mercedes is careful to point out that the system is not intended to serve as compensation for any driver impairment, only as an alert to the condition.

Volvo offers the similar Volvo Driver Alert Control system (part of a $1,700 "Technology Package" add-on) on the new XC60 crossover SUV. While the Mercedes system monitors movement of the steering wheel, Volvo’s Driver Alert Control uses a camera that watches the road ahead and looks for instances of the car wandering in the lane, or even crossing out of the lane.

Volvo’s Lane Departure Warning — a technology available now from many other manufacturers, too — issues an alert if the car appears in danger of leaving the lane, and Toyota’s Automatic Lane Keeping, available on the Prius, actually applies a small amount of steering input to shepherd the car back toward the middle of the lane.

Additionally, Volvo is fielding a fleet of 100 test cars on the streets of Europe which have instruments with driver-observing cameras for a three-year test to learn as much as possible about driver behavior. This will be used to help refine systems, such as those that detect impaired drivers, which augment drivers’ capabilities for safer driving.

Nissan, which aspires to cultivate a reputation for safety technology, is working on an anti-drunk driving technology in its labs that would clamp down on drivers who are impaired by alcohol.

In the prototype car there are alcohol sensors in the seats that sniff out alcohol on the breath like a suspicious spouse. If the inebriated driver ignores the resulting dashboard warning alert and attempts to shift the car out of park, an alcohol sensor in the shifter tests the driver’s skin and locks the car in park if the driver fails the test.

Should a drunk nevertheless succeed in driving, or drink while already underway, the computer watches the driver’s face for signs of impairment.

Frequently closing the eyes elicits a warning that the driver is in danger of falling asleep. The car cannot respond with a bracing slap of the face, but the car does yank on the seatbelt to jerk the driver to attention.

If the car wanders in the lane, Nissan’s prototype does not mince words, telling the driver “You have become negligent. Please stop your car in a safe place,” while repeatedly yanking on the seatbelt until the driver complies.

That might be the best technology we can muster, at least until someone designs a device to shake those on the road until they learn to stop driving while distracted, no matter in what form.

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