While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) begins a two-year effort to develop driver drowsiness detection technology for commercial trucking, Ford Motor Co. is in the midst of very similar research for automobile drivers.

Ford is using its own proprietary VIRtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX) full-motion-based driving simulator to study the effects of drowsiness on 30 test driver subjects. Ford began the study last December and expects to wrap up data collection this month, said Jeff Greenberg, a staff technical specialist for Ford and manager of its VIRTTEX lab.

"These are often not minor accidents when they occur," said Greenberg. "When someone falls asleep at the wheel, the vehicle often leaves the lane and the roadway - followed by a major crash or rollover. Our goal is to better understand these incidents and investigate whether new technologies could be developed that might detect this situation and help prevent it from happening."

According to NHTSA estimates, drowsiness accounts for about 4% of all fatal crashes or more than 1,500 deaths each year. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes annually -- about 1.5% of all crashes -- involve drowsiness and fatigue as a principal causal factor, said Greenberg. Results from its drowsiness research should be available later this spring.

Ford and researchers at its Volvo subsidiary are investigating ways to sense when a driver is falling asleep to help prevent unintended lane departure, he said. Several concepts are being reviewed to alert drivers, such as using simulated vibration, flashing red lights, and forcibly turning the wheel to keep the vehicle from swerving out of its lane.