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Technology aims to stop drivers from falling asleep at the wheel

Researchers from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute have developed a new tool they hope will prevent accidents caused by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. Tiny cameras monitor eye movements and alert drivers when it’s time to take a break.

Technology aims to stop drivers from falling asleep at the wheel
A woman demonstrates the new technology at the VISION fair. Photo: DPA

“The system will neither bother or hinder the driver, but will immediately recognise when they are tired or close their eyes for a moment,” developer Frank Klefenz said while presenting the “Eye Tracker” at the VISION trade fair in Stuttgart on Tuesday.

Testing of the matchbook-sized camera system is set to begin in early 2011, with possible driver alerts including a warning light or a steering wheel vibration, Klefenz said.

The German Road Safety Council (DVR) estimates that one in four highway traffic fatalities is caused by momentary driver drowsiness, and this can be particularly dangerous at the high speeds typical to the autobahn.

While there are already other systems that monitor whether drivers are awake, the Fraunhofer Institute researchers based in Ilmenau, Thuringia say theirs is the first that can register three-dimensional images in real time, a development that has several auto manufacturers interested in testing the technology. Unlike other systems, it also operates without the use of a PC, connecting directly to a vehicle’s on-board programs.

The current prototype looks unwieldy, but can be streamlined for mass reproduction.

“For this we can use the tiny lenses that are used in every mobile phone camera,” Klefenz said, adding that these would be so discrete they could be installed in the rear-view mirror or the edge of the windscreen.

Sunglasses or night driving conditions wouldn’t pose a problem because the camera uses infrared light.

“It’s invisible to people, but makes our technology independent of outside light,” Klefenz explained.

Further developments to the product could include saving typical eye movements for each driver to determine individual warning signals of fatigue.

Klefenz also predicted that production of the Eye Tracker will likely cost less than €100 per device, making it accessible for even basic model vehicles.

DPA/The Local/ka

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DRIVING

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

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