It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not: cameras that monitor eyelids and sound a warning when they droop, jolting the driver to stay alert.
The system was among a handful of technologies that the government recommended adopting in the wake of a 2005 accident involving a jack-knifed Whole Foods Market Inc. truck and a motor coach carrying a high-school marching band.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the trucker’s lack of sleep was the probable cause of the accident, which killed five people, including the band leader and his 11-year-old granddaughter. The truck driver was acquitted of criminal charges, and Whole Foods settled civil cases while asserting both he and the bus driver shared blame.
More than 30,000 people in the U.S. have perished in large-truck crashes since, as proposals to mandate eyelid-monitoring devices, collision-avoidance systems and dozens of other life-saving innovations that cost just $500 to $2,500 have languished in review at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“They’ll research everything to death, even though manufacturers have started to put this stuff in because their customers want it,” said Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a watchdog group funded partly by the insurance industry. “We don’t know why it’s not happening, other than a lack of political will.”
The Transportation Department said it’s taking action.
“We will continue to use all the tools at our disposal, including the deployment of new technologies, to ensure that drivers are well rested and alert behind the wheel,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an e-mailed statement. He also vowed to “shut down those high-risk companies with troubling safety records that fail to fix their problems.”
Trucker fatigue is back in the spotlight following a June collision in New Jersey where a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. driver who police say went at least 24 hours without sleep crashed his truck into a limousine carrying comedian Tracy Morgan. Last week, Wal-Mart said Morgan was partly responsible for his injuries because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
Days after that, four members of the North Central Texas College women’s softball team were killed when a tractor-trailer crossed a highway median in Oklahoma and hit their bus. The police said the driver told investigators he was distracted.
Though he wouldn’t comment on those still-active investigations, Rob Molloy, deputy director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s office of highway safety, said “Over and over, we’re seeing drivers who aren’t fit to drive because they’re fatigued involved in accidents.”
His agency investigates accidents and makes recommendations but can’t mandate safety equipment.
The American Trucking Associations said it supports new technologies that improve vehicle safety and driver performance as long as the benefit is proven, and there is a reasonable cost. As early as 2010, the ATA petitioned for requirements that trucks have devices that can limit their speed, a change that is now in the early stages of rulemaking. Still the industry group and the government are sometimes at odds.
“NTSB often makes recommendations based on high-profile crashes, sometimes anomalies, not on the primary causes of truck crashes or what would be most the effective solutions for reducing the number of crashes,” said Sean McNally, an ATA spokesman.
While regulators and the industry sort it out, road fatalities are increasing. The number of large-truck crashes involving fatalities rose 18 percent to 3,802 in 2012, from 3,211 in 2009, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There were 77,000 accidents that resulted in injuries, but not death, up from 53,000 in 2009, an increase of about 45 percent. Some of those gains are attributable to an increase in miles driven as the economy improved.
There’s no shortage of fatigue-monitoring gear on the market or in late stages of development. With heavy-duty trucks costing upwards of $100,000, the addition of high-tech equipment would not add greatly to the sales price.
But the industry has typically lagged behind passenger cars in safety features like air bags, which are still not mandatory in trucks. Crash-avoidance technology for cars is already on the road in small numbers.
Meritor WABCO, a joint venture between Meritor Inc. and WABCO Holdings Inc., has a system that uses radar to alert drivers of lane obstructions and pending collisions. It applies braking automatically when it senses an imminent crash and automatically adjusts cruise control to manage safe following distances. Outfitting a truck would cost about $2,000 to $2,500.
NHTSA is in the final stages of requiring all trucks to include electronic stability control, which uses computer-controlled steering and braking to prevent rollovers, at a cost of about $1,160 per truck. The agency estimates the requirement could save 49 to 60 lives a year and prevent 649 to 858 injuries.
A more advanced kind of crash-avoidance technology that engages truck brakes automatically before an impending crash could prevent as many as 300 fatalities a year and yield $3.1 billion in economic benefits, a NHTSA-funded study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute concluded last year.
One of the more promising fatigue-monitoring devices is an eyelid-monitoring system similar to one the investigators said should be studied after the Whole Foods truck accident.
Even though the NTSB said sleep deprivation was the probable cause of the accident, the driver was acquitted of negligent homicide and other charges, according to Associated Press accounts. His attorney argued that the trucker wasn’t tired and the bus driver was partly responsible.
Whole Foods settled a number of civil cases, agreeing to pay crash victims while asserting both drivers were to blame, according to a case summary by the Westlaw legal resource service. Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery declined to comment on the case.
In its 2009 report on the case, the NTSB recommended study of a device that would monitor driver fatigue. Delphi Automotive Plc is developing one called the Driver State Monitor that sounds an alarm when it senses the driver is blinking or moving his head like a person about to fall asleep. It’s slated to go on sale in 2016, said, Kristen Kinley, a spokeswoman for the Troy, Michigan-based company.
The Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration responded at the time that there were no eyelid devices ready for real-world use, partly because some didn’t work at night and it wasn’t clear whether the audible warnings would work.
Delphi now says it has solved a technical challenge that plagued earlier systems -- its sensors work even if a driver is wearing sunglasses -- according to a company fact sheet.
Most fatigue monitoring technology is still too unreliable or costly to require its use by millions of drivers nationwide, Transportation Department spokesman Brian Farber said.
“Where we are able to make a difference in preventing crashes, we do so -- even when we are met with frequent and fervent opposition from some stakeholders,” Farber said.
Freight companies are now able to equip a truck with sensors that generate a continuous feed of data to their headquarters. Computers can then pick up troubling behaviors, such as drifting across lanes or swerving.
Safety managers can follow up by reviewing the video to determine if there was fatigue or distraction, said Steve Mitgang, chief executive officer of SmartDrive Systems Inc., a San Diego-based business that has sold its the camera-based technology to armored truck company Brinks Co.
“When you have video proof, the results are remarkable,” said Mitgang said. “Behavior changes dramatically right away.”
SmartDrive costs about $500 in equipment per truck, with a monthly fee of $40-$50 per truck, per month for monitoring.
All these cutting edge technologies are of scant comfort to those families who have recently lost loved ones.
Judith Williams, 57, of Merrillville, Indiana, lost seven family members in August 2013 when their Jeep Cherokee was sandwiched between two tractor-trailers in a construction zone on Interstate 65.
Williams’s daughter, Lindsey, had just picked up her sister, Yvette, in Indianapolis and were driving home for a family gathering with their four children and uncle. The Jeep caught fire, killing all of the passengers.
A little more than a year later, family gatherings feel empty, Williams said. She struggles every day, relying on her faith to get by. “It’s still a day by day process,” she said.
Months later, Williams heard about forward-collision avoidance systems available on some trucks and is convinced it could have made a difference in her daughters’ crash.
“Considering the cost of an accident, it’s a small price to pay,” Williams said. “This could have saved their lives.”