GPS a false economy in truck-driver-fatigue management

Monday, 25 October, 2010

The Australian fatigue-monitoring technology company, Optalert, whose underlying technology was invented by sleep-medicine expert, Dr Murray Johns, has criticised the National Transport Commission's (NTC)  recent discussion paper, Improving the Basic Fatigue Management Option, suggesting an alternative approach is needed to curb fatigue-related accidents.

Optalert Chief Executive Officer John Prendergast - a thought leader on behaviour-based safety (BBS) and its effects on ‘chain of responsibility’ and fatigue management - says that, although he fully supports the NTC’s desire to decrease fatigue-related accidents in the transport industry; the current approach is fundamentally flawed.

“Our sole purpose for existing as a company is to eliminate fatigue accidents,” said Prendergast. “This is a sustainable goal being achieved by forward-thinking fleets, mining operators, long-haul bus and 4x4 drivers using Optalert alertness monitoring technology.

“While we applaud the NTC and fleets such as Toll and Linfox for wishing to actively implement a system that will act as an anti-fatigue device, we believe that GPS is not the correct technology with which to achieve this goal.

“GPS is an undeniably useful technology for managing on-time deliveries and informing fleet management on the whereabouts of its drivers and machinery. From a return-on-investment perspective, we agree a fleet couldn’t be profitable without it. But to suggest that GPS can make the highway safer by preventing fatigue is quite misguided.

“My main concern with the proposed move is that it doesn’t take into consideration the nature of driver fatigue, which cannot be calculated or averaged out using GPS. Moreover, it makes the assumption that drivers are always fit for work when they start their shift and fails to consider influencing factors outside of the workplace, such as looking after a sick child late into the night, marital issues or a big night out with friends as just some of the very real reasons for tiredness behind the wheel - well before a journey has even begun.

“We’ve seen drivers close to a fatigue-related accident after only 30 minutes on the road – nowhere near the proposed nine-hour GPS guide that is being discussed as the ‘cut-off point’ by those pushing for mandatory use of telematic technology (GPS). In fact, we have statistics that show the majority of incidents occur within 45 minutes of leaving the depot.

“Truck driving is a unique profession with some inherently unique risks. Drivers must be attentive and alert at all times - there’s no opportunity for error. That challenge, combined with the fact that the driver is highly likely to be working shifts and have a pile of out-of-work stresses, makes fatigue a very human condition.

“The only way to accurately measure the alertness of a driver during his journey is to monitor him in real time. This cannot be done through GPS, which uses predetermined calculations to guess fatigue levels.”

A human approach is being rallied by Optalert. The company says that, although the transport industry may be used to adding gauges in trucks that report how far the machine can go, devices such as Optalert that reports how far the person can go need to be adopted. Optalert is a real-time system that detects the early onset of driver drowsiness by accurately measuring a driver’s physiological alertness.

“Both the person and the machine need to be looked at in unison to fight fatigue related accidents,” Prendergast adds. “Both cannot be monitored by the same technology, because the person is different to the machine.”

The system works through tiny invisible light emitters and receivers that are built into the frame of Optalert glasses, worn by drivers to measure the velocity of the eyelid 500 times per second. The glasses are paired with an in-cab dashboard indicator upon which the driver can see, at a glance in large easy-to-read numbers, their drowsiness level displayed as a score from zero to ten. The system gives drivers a visible score of impairment that can be correlated to a blood alcohol level, with a reading of 5.0 on the scale similar to a blood alcohol reading of .05 in terms of level of impairment.

Providing another level of safety, the Optalert Drowsiness Score can also be made remotely visible via mobile internet to management. Up-to-date reports are then sent to the control room, while the driver is empowered in real time to make a safe driving decision when the warning sounds (up to half an hour prior to dangerous levels of fatigue setting in) well before the driver even notices signs of tiredness.

“We need to remember that it is essentially the behaviour of the individual that is the cause of a fatigue accident. Therefore, changing behaviour will achieve an overall higher level of safety profile.” 

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