By Dr. Mike Lenné, Chief Science & Innovation Officer at Seeing Machines
In May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its preliminary traffic fatality numbers for 2020. In a year when vehicle miles traveled have dropped dramatically by over 13% 1, one would reasonably expect a correspondingly dramatic decline in traffic deaths and injuries. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred with traffic deaths on US roadways actually rising by 7.2 percent to 38,680 2.
Historically, deaths from driver behavior have overwhelmingly represented the main cause of traffic death and injury: Distracted driving, drowsy driving, drunk driving, speeding, and not wearing a safety belt continue to be the leading factors in these otherwise preventable crashes.
Throughout the years, campaigns and organizations have made great strides in educating the public as to the dangers of driving while not fully engaged, along with continued improvements in road infrastructure and vehicle occupant protection. Consequently, traffic deaths have fallen from a high of 51,091 in 1980 to 36,096 in 2019.
Figures for 2019 show that 3,142 people died from distracted driving-related deaths, 10,142 people died by alcohol impaired driving, and 697 people were killed by drowsy driving. It is also worth mentioning injured persons as they are often the hidden road toll and also need to be considered here. In 2019, there were on average 76 people seriously injured for every person killed 3. For distraction, drowsiness and intoxication, this equates to 13,981 fatalities and approximately 1.05 million injured people.
There is still a long way to go in reducing road-related deaths and major injuries but an answer could literally be staring the driver right in the eyes.
The risk of death and injury on our roads can be mitigated by Driver Monitoring Systems (DMS) which utilize small, discreet cameras pointed toward the driver to determine if the driver is distracted, drowsy or impaired. Using advanced algorithms and optical technology, DMS is a closed loop system, meaning that any information collected stays on board the vehicle. DMS is not designed to collect data and “tattle” on the driver, rather it enables the vehicle to warn the driver, in real-time, when he/she is too distracted or impaired to drive. DMS is also looking for instances when the driver is falling asleep. When this occurs, the system can warn the driver with a tailored warning, likely visual or auditory, with potential to escalate as required.
Driver assist systems are exploding in popularity. Two of the big three US automakers have announced that new vehicles will be available this year that will allow for some hands-free use while driving. Internationally, there is a growing number of companies who offer hands-free driving now. More importantly, all of the world’s major OEMs plan to launch similar technologies within the next two to three years.
So, how many lives and serious injuries could DMS prevent?
DMS is in the early stages of deployment and therefore scientific reports are not yet available to demonstrate real world crash and injury reductions.
However, a recent study reported that connected vehicle and driver assistance technologies could reduce crashes in light vehicles by at least 33% 4.
These figures are impossible to ignore. To place that in context, traffic deaths fell 29% in the 39 years between 1980 and 2019.
If we were to apply a conservative effectiveness rate of 30% and assume high levels of DMS penetration in the vehicle fleet to address distraction, drowsiness and intoxication in 2019, we estimate that up to 4,200 fatalities and 315,000 injuries could have been prevented. Even if we reduce the effectiveness rate to 10% and allow for a ramp up to high levels of DMS penetration over several years, there remains a dramatic improvement to the prevention of road trauma.
In Europe, the European New Car Assessment Program, or Euro NCAP, has been studying DMS technology for years and believes that the technology is a critical future safety system. Beginning in 2023, Euro NCAP will reward automotive manufacturers that use DMS to detect distraction and drowsiness.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) understands the potential of DMS and has included recommendations to accelerate advanced safety technologies in its latest Most Wanted List5.
The U.S. Congress has also taken notice. Acting on the NTSB recommendations, legislation recently passed the House which would require widespread use of DMS technology. In the Senate, the SAFE Act, which would require NHTSA to begin a federal rule making on DMS technology, was included in the bipartisan infrastructure package and at the time of writing, is expected to soon pass the Senate. As the House and Senate consider highway and vehicle safety, DMS looks set to be a key safety solution as part of a larger transportation and infrastructure package.
“For over 10 years I have worked to make sure that new, advanced vehicle safety technologies are included as part of federal law to stop drunk driving, said J.T. Griffin, former Chief Government Affairs Officer at MADD and Seeing Machines consultant. “I am pleased to now be working to support Driver Monitoring Systems which have the potential to stop distracted, drowsy, and impaired driving and reduce traffic crashes by almost a third.”
It is time to embrace the new technologies that we know will make meaningful improvements and save thousands of lives. The mandatory installation of DMS into every new vehicle should be at the top of this list.
About Dr. Mike Lenné
Mike is a global authority on human factors and safety. Following an esteemed academic career as a Professor in Human Factors at the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC), he moved to Seeing Machines in 2014 and has held Executive roles leading both technology and commercial businesses.
Currently as Chief Science & Innovation Officer he leads our human factors, machine intelligence and advanced engineering teams that design and develop our next generation technologies. Working with government, industry and global policy groups he promotes operator state monitoring technology, making the world’s roads and skies safer. He remains an Adjunct Professor at MUARC, holds a Global Executive MBA and a PhD in Human Factors Psychology.
1 Early Estimates of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities and Fatality Rate by Sub-Categories in 2020 (revised June 2021). U,S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (Report DOT HS 813 118) Available from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813118
2 Distracted Driving 2019: Summary of Statistical Findings. U,S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (Report DOT HS 813 111). Accessed from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813111
3 Motor Vehicle Safety Data. U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Studies. Dataset available from https://www.bts.gov/content/motor-vehicle-safety-data
4 Yue, L., Abdel-Aty, M., Wu, Y. & Wang, L. (2018). Assessment of the safety beneﬁts of vehicles’ advanced driver assistance connectivity and low level automation systems. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 117, 55-64.
5 2021 – 2022 NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements https://www.ntsb.gov/safety/mwl/Pages/mwl-21-22/mwl-hs-04.aspx