A/Prof Mark Howard

Drowsiness research key to reducing road deaths

A world-first study which has identified novel ways of detecting driver drowsiness could be the key to reducing our road toll.

Using an eye tracking system, researchers demonstrated for the first time that our visual attention - our ability to strategically scan the environment to avoid hazards - severely deteriorates when we are sleep deprived.

Drowsiness is a direct cause of 20 to 30 per cent of motor vehicle accidents in Australia. Although great gains have been made in areas of road safety such as drink driving and speeding, we haven't been able to impact on drowsiness as a cause of accidents.

Principal Investigator of the breakthrough study published in Scientific Reports, Associate Professor Mark Howard of Austin Health's Institute of Breathing and Sleep, says the findings could change this.

"Not only can we use these measures to monitor and evaluate drowsiness but they can then be used for potentially alerting the driver to impairment in real time or to a centralised base (eg truck company monitoring base).

"The measures could also be used to evaluate the impact of legislative changes on driver drowsiness and used by transport companies to assess whether particular schedules are dangerous.

"Australian companies are international leaders in alertness monitoring and very well placed to develop these findings for use in industry," Assoc Prof Howard says.

The Austin Health led trial was a collaboration with Swinburne University's Centre for Human Psychopharmacology.

Trial participants were kept awake for 36 hours before undertaking two hours of driving a car on a driving track. During the drive their visual attention was assessed using an eye tracking system. Driving impairment was evaluated by when the driver drifted out of their lane.

Key findings were that after being sleep deprived, drivers were three times more likely to drive out of their lane, the frequency and duration of their eye blinks increased (so eyes remained closed for longer) and there was a reduced rate of visual fixation on other objects.

"Normally during driving we would be looking at hazards on the side of the road and hazards ahead in traffic but sleep deprivation impairs our ability to do this. Part of the reason for this is that your gaze becomes more random than planned and part of it is to do with eye closure," he says.

The breakthrough received extensive media coverage over the weekend, including on the Channel 9 and 10 news, on ABC and 3AW radio, and in the Herald Sun.