Sleepy trucker tech taking shape in Houston lab

Government agency interested in tired driver science to prevent deadly crashes

KPRC 2 Investigates looks into the safety risks involving drowsy driving. Joel Eisenbaum reports.

HOUSTON – The problem of sleepy drivers is so pervasive, and such a threat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now studies the problem.

The National Highway Traffic Administration estimates there are about 100,000 drowsy driver related accidents reported to police. Those accidents result in approximately 800 deaths and 50,000 injuries.

“You’re talking about 80,000 pounds going 60 miles per hour. That’s just got bad news written all over it,” said Jack Russell, a veteran trucker and truck driving instructor at Houston Community College.

HCC operates the largest truck driving school of its kind in the United States, and while alertness and readiness is a core safety item taught at the school, there is no surefire way to ensure truckers are fit to hit the road each and every time.

That problem is age-old and the solution has proven to be elusive, but an accident investigation firm in Clear Lake, Texas, called ATA Associates has partnered with a company in Hungary, called PharmaFlight, to measure 600 driver biometrics to determine the fitness of over-the-road truckers before they hit the road.

“It’s the importance of having a certified test program, having a way to ensure drivers are as healthy as we can determine them to be,” said Bob Swint, CEO of ATA Associates.

PharmaFlight has developed similar testing protocols for the aviation industry.

A prototype of the test, which consists of a telemetry equipment that can fit into an oversized briefcase, took about 10 minutes to administer. A host of electrical leads are attached to various body parts of the test subject.

Processing time took about an hour during a demonstration test. Results yield alertness and fitness metrics compared to the group as a whole. The formula for determining a particular driver’s readiness is proprietary. Importantly, the methodology and results used have not yet been peer-reviewed.

But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has shown interest in the work happening at ATA Associates, and recently attended a video conference call to hear an initial presentation about the testing technology.

Swint envisions that one day trucking companies will use a portable version of the testing equipment, perhaps daily, to monitor drivers’ road readiness.