When was the last time you got your seven-to-nine recommended hours of sleep per night? Most of us know chronic sleep deficits can impact focus, health, work, and relationships. But fewer of us realize that a simple lack of sleep can put ourselves and others at risk behind the wheel of a car. In response to the huge number of sleep-related crashes each year, researchers at the Hong Kong Baptist University developed a smartphone app that can detect drowsiness and alert drivers before an accident can happen.
In a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 1 in 25 drivers reported falling asleep while driving in the previous month. That led to a whopping 72,000 accidents and 800 deaths in 2013 alone (though some believe those numbers are extremely low estimates, and the real number may be around 6,000 fatalities). Sleepy drivers were more likely to drive into an inanimate object off the side of the road without applying their brakes. Dozing drivers are also responsible for a disproportionate number of head-on and rear-end crashes.
While falling asleep is obviously dangerous, people often underestimate how much their risk of a car accident increases just from being drowsy. Worse yet, sleep-related driving issues don't just occur at night. That mid-afternoon sleepiness from your post-lunch food coma or a drop in blood sugar late in the day can impact your reflexes and mental focus when it comes to driving.
An Anti-Nap Monitor
To address the problem, a team led by Hong Kong University's Professor Cheung Yiu-ming designed an app to fight on-the-road drowsiness. Using the real-time video technology of any smartphone, the app tracks and analyzes facial features and notes fatigue symptoms, especially in changes of the eyelids and head position. Just turn on the app and face the phone toward yourself near their steering wheel. If the camera catches you getting sleepy, an alarm will wake you up.
While there are a few sleep-related technologies currently on the market, most are targeted toward luxury car drivers, and they're not transferable from car-to-car. Cheun's version, on the other hand, is being praised for its ease-of-use, affordability, portability, and accessibility. Everyone from the average driver to professional truckers and machinery operators can use it. These features, combined with its high success rate has already won the team several awards, including a Gold Medal for Distinction in the Computer Science at the 45th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2017. The next step will be to bring it to the marketplace, and word is the team is already seeking a U.S. patent.
Until technology improves to keep us awake, your best safeguard may just be a nap before you hit the road.