The University of Iowa is testing drunk driver detection technology

Senior research assistant Cher Carney runs the high-hostility ground vehicle driving simulator, NADS-1 at the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator in Coralville in July 2017. The UI Driving Safety Research Institute recently received a $2 million grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to assess how effective driver monitoring systems can be to determine if someone is driving drunk. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — After seeing big drops in alcohol-related driving deaths in the 1990s, progress nationally has stalled — prompting University of Iowa researchers to examine whether a growing array of automotive technology could once again move the needle.

The UI Driving Safety Research Institute — home of the National Advanced Driving Simulator — recently landed $2 million from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to assess how effective new driver monitoring systems can be in determining whether someone is driving drunk.

“The big thing is, ultimately, how do these systems work? How effective can they be? What is the potential for them to reduce fatal crashes?” said Tim Brown, director of drug-driving research at the UI Institute. “There’s a lot of effort going into trying to lower that number, and it’s just not going away.”

The total number of traffic deaths has increased over the past decade from 32,893 in 2013 to 42,514 in 2022, and with it the share of alcohol-related vehicle deaths from 30 percent a decade ago to 32 percent, according to the US Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Of the 13,524 people who died in alcohol-related crashes in 2022 – up from 10,084 in 2013 – 59 percent were under the influence of alcohol; 12 percent were their passengers; 16 percent were in other vehicles; and 12 percent were non-passengers – such as pedestrians or cyclists.

“And so I think the question at this point is, are there technological methods that can help reduce that — whether it’s from distraction, drowsiness or alcohol,” Brown said, noting that his team is also investigating potential tools to help with drowsy and distracted driving. “What kind of support can new technologies provide to prevent people from being involved in these crashes?”

Technology opportunity

The opportunity for technological assistance to address these larger societal problems is increasing as ever-advanced driver monitoring systems are designed and installed in more and more vehicles.

Some, using a camera that can track eye and head movements, can warn a driver to stop and rest or keep their eyes on the road, for example.

“The question that arises is to what extent can we use that kind of technology to determine whether someone is legally injured or not?” Brown said. “Are there signatures that can be observed from vehicle control type actions, such as the way in which the vehicle is maneuvered.”

Are there facial reaction signals or steering wheel sensors that can measure heart rate or breathing that indicate alcohol use, Brown said.

“We’re really looking at trying to understand the ability to protect someone who’s over the legal limit and also separate that from other types of impairments that might be out there, you know, if a driver is drowsy,” he said.

A new generation of systems is being developed to identify when drivers exceed the legal blood alcohol level. But, Brown said, one of the big challenges will be not just determining if someone is impaired, but how they are impaired, to what degree and what to do about it.

“To know what to do, you have to know how they’re impaired,” he said. “So if someone is distracted, you don’t want to give answers that are designed to help someone who is drowsy.”

The UI study on alcohol-related driver monitoring systems will put participants in a driving simulator in four different states: when they are alert and sober; when drowsy and sober; when their blood alcohol level is 0.08; and when their BAC is .12.

Researchers will collect data on driver performance, eye tracking, head and body movements, heart rate and respiration to determine “which of these measures are most sensitive to distinguishing the type of impairment?”

Preparatory phase

The alcohol-related research is in its preparatory phase — determining the right sensors and cameras and other technology to use. Investigators also still need to determine the best “driving environment” to test.

“People can drive impaired anywhere,” he said. “But there are areas where drink-driving is more over-represented – in terms of crashes and fatalities. So we’re trying to work our way through the driver environment to make sure that where we’re testing represents the kind of environments where the greatest risk exists.”

The plan is to start some preliminary studies later this year – before scaling up to full data collection next spring.

And Brown’s team is also conducting separate studies on distracted and drowsy driving and monitoring systems that might help.

“There’s a lot of technology that’s been put in place to try to help people make better choices,” he said. “(The driver monitoring system) is just another opportunity to do that on a wide range of things.”

How to participate?

Eligible participants will be recruited through the university’s starting in the spring of 2025.

Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.

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