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Molly Lowney
Young Scientist

A Cork student's idea for steering wheel technology that will alert drivers when they are fatigued

The project is on display at the virtual BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition this week.

IT IS ESTIMATED that driver fatigue is a contributory factor in as many as one in five driver deaths in Ireland every year, according to the Road Safety Authority (RSA). 

A person’s heart rate varies depending on what they are doing – for example, it will be slower if a person is sleeping and faster if they are exercising. 

So, with that in mind, Molly Lowney from Midleton College in Cork has developed a project which shows the potential use of medical technology in steering wheels to help improve road safety. 

Her project is on display at the virtual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2021 this week. 

As part of her research, Lowney asked five people to wear Apple watches from 7am to midnight with a goal of showing that a person’s heart rate decreases as a person becomes tired throughout the day. 

Lowney aims to identify technology that can be incorporated into a vehicle steering wheel that will recognise the driver’s regular baseline heart rate. As the driver’s heart rate decreases to a certain point, the device would then make a noise to alert the driver to pull off the road.

“Hopefully the driver would pull off the road and follow the RSA’s advice of ‘Stop, Sip and Sleep’. So, they’d have a coffee and take a nap for 15 minutes,” Lowney told TheJournal.ie. 

Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic Lowney hasn’t yet had the chance to produce the device with a mechanic. 

Once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, she hopes to conduct further research and visit a mechanic to develop the device. Lowney then plans to send the prototypes to various mechanics and car manufacturers.

Speaking about why she chose to develop this idea, Lowney said she “wanted to improve driver safety”. 

Lowney hopes her idea could eventually be used in vehicles such as lorries where drivers are on the roads for long periods of time. 

Driver fatigue

An international study conducted in 2018, called the E-Survey of Road Users’ Attitudes (ESRA), shows that a quarter of drivers in Ireland (23.9%) said they had driven at least once, over the previous month, when they were so tired that they had trouble keeping their eyes open. 

A similar study carried out by the RSA in 2019 shows that 16% of 1,000 motorists surveyed confirmed they had ever fallen asleep or nodded off while driver. 

The RSA has the following advice for tired drivers:

  • Stop, park in a safe place and take a nap for 15 minutes (set your mobile phone alarm). This is the most important tactic.
  • To really make the most of the break, take a caffeine drink before the nap (150mg of caffeine eg. two cups of coffee). After the nap, the caffeine should have started to take effect.
  • Then, get some fresh air and stretch your legs for a few minutes.
  • By following all of the above advice you should be able to drive for another hour or so.

The BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition 2021 is taking place online for the first time ever as a result of the current Covid-19 crisis. More information about the exhibition can be found here

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