Drowsy driving-related fatalities are tragic for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are preventable. Technology is one frequently touted prevention strategy, but today’s in-car innovations do not go far enough. Technology needs to switch gears from trying to compensate for drowsy drivers’ failings to predicting drowsy driving before the car’s ignition even ignites, said sleep medicine experts in a recent Sleep Review Conversations podcast.

In the podcast, Jeffrey Durmer, MD, PhD, adjunct professor at Georgia State University Department of Health Professions and co-founder and chief medical officer of FusionHealth, said, “The technology about movement of the head, eyes, or even the car…is really only there to mitigate urgent changes in the environment. Some technologies, even things like backup cameras or radar detection systems, are great, but they don’t actually directly impact drowsy driving itself.” Durmer said the technology that will make a significant impact in the future will predict and prevent drowsy driving in itself. He said, “Population management technology is starting to emerge to detect people who are at higher risk for things like drowsy driving. I think that’s where we’re going to get a significant effect.” These technologies may take risk factors such as untreated sleep disorders or the number of hours of fatigue prior to driving into consideration.

Nathaniel F. Watson, MD, MSc, president-elect of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, said another needed technology is a drowsy driving counterpart to the drunk driving breathalyzer. But a “sleepalyzer” can only be developed once a reliable biomarker for drowsiness is identified. “The sleep community needs to work to try to find a good roadside biomarker…that could really move this field forward,” Watson said.

Watson added that enforcing drowsy driving laws such as Maggie’s Law in New Jersey (which establishes drowsy driving as a form of recklessness for drivers who have been awake 24 or more hours and get into fatal car wrecks) is challenging without a reliable drowsiness test.

Another technology on the horizon is the self-driving car. These vehicles, such as the Google Self-Driving Car that is currently being tested, could truly propel the campaign against drowsy driving forward. It’s futuristic, Watson said, but he said he imagines the sleep community would be in favor of developing this technology. “That is the kind of thing that obviously could flip this whole issue…on its head,” Watson said. Drowsy driving would no longer be the concern, Watson said, with commuting time potentially even being conducive to catching up on sleep.

In this case, issue-flipping technologies are likely exactly what we need.

Sree Roy is editor of Sleep Review. CONTACT [email protected]