Statistics show that most drivers have been tired on the road at some point. Some may get away with a veer across a lane, but others are not so fortunate.
Remember Gary Hart? He had just four hours sleep prior to jumping into his Land Rover and setting off down the M62.
While passing through Selby, he fell asleep at the wheel, crashed through a barrier and ended up on the East Coast main train line. Ten people died when the London express hit his vehicle, derailed, and ploughed into an oncoming goods train.
In the US, there are some 100,000 sleep-related accidents each year – and 1,500 deaths. In the UK some 20% of motorway crashes are blamed on excessive tiredness.
With that in mind, Volvo is preparing to release a new active safety system that senses when drivers are tiring and losing concentration and warns them to take a break.
The Swedish manufacturer invited Fleet News features editor Phill Tromans to try the system near its headquarters in Gothenburg.
He was advised to get up early on the day of the test and to avoid as many stimulants as possible to ensure he was as tired as could be by the time he took he wheel. Here’s his report...
6am: I get up an hour and a half earlier than usual. I look blearily at the time and immediately regret taking this assignment.
12pm: Set off for Heathrow airport. Really missing caffeine already.
5.20pm: Wake-up call from security staff, who in the wake of last month’s terror alerts are being particularly thorough with their searches. Remove shoes, jacket and belt and regret wearing baggy jeans for the flight as they feel in danger of falling down.
6.40pm: Plane departs for Gothenburg. I reluctantly turn down free caffeine from stewardess.
9.45pm: Land at Gothenburg.
10.30pm: Arrive at hotel in central Gothenburg. Decide to check out Swedish TV to wake me up. Unexpectedly find cult Irish comedy Father Ted. Laugh a lot and wake up a bit.
11.30pm: My taxi arrives at hotel to take me to Volvo’s remote test track, an estimated 45 minutes away. The driver looks exactly like Mr Strickland, the balding headmaster from Back to the Future. He can’t get into his taxi. He looks perplexed, then tries the car in front. Bingo. I am worried. Mr Strickland mentions, as we leave, that he has not been to the test track in some time.
12am: With the bright lights of Gothenburg now behind us and a vast forest opening up ahead, I am noticing a preponderance of trees and little else. Traffic around us is thinning, and so is the ambient light. Mr Strickland looks lost.
12.40am: Mr Strickland performs a sudden U-turn and sets off down a tiny backroad with renewed vigour. I am feeling utterly shattered, and ever so slightly terrified.
12.45am: A massive floodlit car park and a pair of barbed wire-topped gates suddenly loom out of the gloom. Despite a complete lack of signage, Mr Strickland has finally located Volvo’s Hällered test track.
12.47am: I am greeted by Volvo’s Swedish PR representative and shown my ride for the next two hours. It is a brand new and normally very luxurious S80 V8, but for the purposes of this test the inside has been butchered to resemble a teenage geek’s bedroom. Infrared lights and cameras face me in the driver’s seat, linked to screens, recorders and laptops strewn over the passenger seats front and back. Cables snake across the floor, hastily covered with mats.
I am introduced to the engineers who will be organising and monitoring my trip. Lena and Tomas will be joining me in the car and they ask how I am doing.
‘Tired,’ I respond, with a weary smile. ‘Good!’ they grin, with just a hint of schadenfreude. I ask Tomas if he too is being kept up late. He says he always works the nightshift and looks as fresh as a daisy. A photographer jumps into view and snaps off a series of shots. I am dazzled by the brightness of the flash and suspect that after being awake for 19 hours, I may not be looking my best.
1am: Traffic control clears us to enter the test track. I had hoped that flinging a 310bhp car around a series of challenging bends might wake me up a little, but find myself on the oval track instead. Lena and Tomas are sitting in the back, and tell me to drive at a steady 70kph (43mph) around the inside lane.
They also tell me not to talk to them. Realisation that this will not be a stimulating drive starts to dawn.
Tomas informs me that he has a dual brake control in the back for when I start to slumber, to stop me ploughing us all into the nearest pine tree. Relief.
1.30am: With 35km down, things are going well. The unusual circumstances have tempered my tiredness a little, as has the slightly disconcerting sight in my rearview mirror of two silent people, lit up like ghosts by their laptop screens.
I am keeping good speed and my trajectory has barely wavered. However, my yawns are becoming more frequent.
2am: I have added 70km to the odometer, and am beginning to feel a bit spaced out. Keeping to 70kph seems a lot more difficult, and I keep realising that I’ve either dropped to 60kph or sped up to 80kph. All of a sudden Lena and Tomas start whispering conspiratorially. It emerges that the camera watching me has died.
We pull over and Lena gives it a wallop.
2.05am: My new-found alertness lasted all of a few minutes and I am back to wavering speeds.
2.10am: I discover that either I can keep a regular speed, or stay in between the lane markers. Doing both is very difficult.
2.20am: I jolt awake and realise my eyes had drifted closed for a second or so. It’s rather like dropping off on a train and waking to find a commuter eyeing you with a mixture of amusement and contempt. Feel embarrassed, then realise that this is supposed to happen. I rub my eyes, adjust my spectacles and pull a stupid face. I try and stay awake, but my eyes seem determined to wander all over the place rather than focus on the road.
2.30am: Jolt awake again and realise that I’m halfway into the next lane. Wrench the car back on track and hope no-one noticed. The S80 emits a beep and a pixellated cup of tea appears on the dash display. ‘Driver Alert!’ it says, followed by something in Swedish. Lena gently tells me that this is the first alert. I nod and renew my concentration.
2.32am: I jolt awake yet again, and the car emits a series of much more urgent beeps. The cup of tea reappears. Probably best to stop now then. My mind is shot and I can’t concentrate on anything at all. The Driver Alert Control system has certainly worked, but I’m sure I would have pulled over long before anyway.
2.40am: Back at the test track building, I am given a fizzy drink. It’s no doubt loaded with caffeine but it’s too late now. I thank everyone and get into the taxi that’s waiting outside. Mr Strickland grins enthusiastically at me and sets off at pace for the hotel. I am too tired to care.
Watch the video
How Volvo’s DAC system warns of potential trouble ahead
THE following afternoon I head to Volvo’s HQ in Torslanda and meet up with Lena once more, as well as Daniel Levin, the company’s active safety systems designer.
He explains how Driver Alert Control (DAC) works. A camera in the windscreen monitors lane markings, much like existing lane departure warning systems, but DAC also monitors the positioning of the car within the lane and picks up unusual swerving. It ranks the standard of driving from one to five and sounds alerts on the top two levels of distraction.
‘It aims to detect primarily sleepiness and fatigue,’ Levin says.
‘In some cases the system can also pick up distractions like putting a destination into the sat nav and also careless driving to some extent.’
The system is not foolproof. No lane markings or snow will cause it to deactivate.
‘It does not prevent prolonged driving, nor does it take any responsibility away from the driver,’ Levin says. It just knows that something is causing him or her to have decreased driving ability.’
Volvo says we can expect to see DAC on production Volvos before the end of 2007.
HOW effective the system will be is difficult to tell at this stage. It certainly woke me up when I dozed off, but even though my eyes were closed for just a couple of seconds I had already travelled a fair distance and was well out of my lane. Had that been on an A-road I could already have been in a world of trouble before the alarm sounded.
The technology certainly works, although I would be happier if the DAC could tell me to take a break before I started drifting off the road. Such a tweak is relatively easy, and will be considered during fine-tuning.
Watch the video (click on play)