Guardians of the Galaxy

Driver distraction and drowsiness, often the result of fatigue, have come under increasing scrutiny in recent times.

As the road freight task increases to meet demands subject to burgeoning population growth and its resultant consumer economy, the transport industry, governments and the broader community have long been looking for a watershed moment to reduce incidents of road crashes in Australia in which fatigue is present up to 44 per cent of the time.

Now after a landmark study, a Co-operative Research Centre Project (CRC-P) funded by Australian Government, led by Seeing Machines in partnership with the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC), they might have found it.

The study, using Guardian technology supplied by in-cab safety monitoring specialist, Seeing Machines, found that truck drivers are twice as likely to crash when fatigued and 11 times more likely to crash when both fatigued and distracted.

In what has been described as a breakthrough innovation never reportedly achieved before, the study also detected where a driver was looking as part of the distraction monitoring in real-time testing.

The fatigue prevention and driver-monitoring technology were tested in working fleet trucks on the road in partnership with Ron Finemore Transport which included the participation of 100 of its drivers who enrolled to take part in the study.

Collectively, they drove 22,000 trips across 1.5 million kilometres. Seeing Machines considers it the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind in the world.

The Guardian technology actively monitors for and alerts commercial drivers to fatigue and distraction in real-time. Real-time in-vehicle monitoring of driver state has increasingly, more recently, shown its value within contemporary safety management systems in the workplace.

This includes monitoring critical safety events such as lane departure, monitoring vehicle control inputs like steering, pedal use and what is known as camera-based approaches like that offered by Guardian in which driver head pose, gaze and eyelid behaviour is monitored.

Seeing Machines and Ron Finemore Transport with Volvo Trucks Australia, used automotive grade technology alongside Guardian, to study driver behaviour well before a microsleep resulted. With the direct input of Ron Finemore Transport, the team fitted ten fleet trucks with the technology and monitored drivers for nine months.

As a direct result from the study, the team has created a comprehensive distraction warning system for drivers.

Ron Finemore Transport began its journey with Guardian technology in 2015. According to Darren Wood, Ron Finemore Transport General Manager – Technology and Innovation, it was a result of having some minor incidents on-road of which they were unable to determine the root cause.

“There had to be a better way of establishing what was happening out on the road in the cab,” he says. “As a business that prides itself on its safety culture, we thought that wasn’t where we wanted to be in the longer term.”

Prior to investing in the Seeing Machines technology Ron Finemore Transport trialled some competing technology from North America.

While it was adequate, the notifications were transmitted 24 hours after they had happened.

The insights crucially weren’t in real time. After pursuing further discussions with Seeing Machines, Ron Finemore Transport insisted they develop a forward-facing camera which was integrated into the existing technology.

While Seeing Machines set about finding a solution, Ron Finemore Transport fitted up ten of its vehicles with the technology and, almost instantly, commenced receiving feedback about some of the issues they had long suspected was happening in their business but had no evidence to prove otherwise.

It promptly led to the transport company installing the technology into every one of its vehicles in a six month period.

“It is now mandatory equipment that we have in our prime mover fleet and a tool that we wouldn’t be without,” says Darren. “Ron quite often says that it’s one of the best pieces of technology that he’s ever seen in his 40 odd years of trading. We wouldn’t be without it now. It should be a mandatory tool across the industry.”

During the initial six-month period of installation Ron Finemore Transport had ideas specific as to how they wanted to interface with the technology. The driver has the ability to tap a button on the camera to initiate a feed of something happening in the background and retrospectively record up to 20 seconds of data. That in itself has proven to be extremely useful and not just from the technology’s perspective but also from other matters related more directly to safety according to Darren.

“Our fuel drivers have some difficult sites they have to navigate on forecourts and even our general freight drivers when they enter their distribution centres,” he says. “The technology has been a useful tool in capturing some of that footage to be able to have a sensible discussion with someone about safety matters that don’t necessarily result in an incident but no less could be improved.”

Given the technology is integrated, if there is an incident out on the road, Ron Finemore Transport can download the footage off the vehicle for thorough review of the minutes leading up to an incident and get a good understanding of what was happening out on the road.

“More often than not it’s about understanding what’s really happening on the road and using the footage and the technology to assist the driver and back up his story,” Darren says. “So that in itself has been a huge benefit.”

Of the major discoveries Seeing Machines has afforded the team at Ron Finemore Transport, perhaps the most significant was the misnomer that fatigue happens at night. According to Darren there is a long held assumption, still prevalent in the industry, that fatigue, after a 12 hour shift, happens in the last part of the shift.

“The reality is fatigue can happen in any part of the shift at any shift in the week and on any day of the week,” he says. “Our evidence in the business suggests it happens in the afternoon more often than not or first thing in the morning to coincide with first daylight.”

Understanding the dynamics of shift patterns, the nature of how people work, whether the driver is more suited to day or night shifts, how well staff present themselves to work from the commencement of a shift, are all crucial factors that need to be thought through as a result of the Guardian technology.

Operations staff at Ron Finemore Transport act upon the datafeed coming back on the truck.

Guardian, as the link between the driver and the business, allows the business access to data and therefore patterns in a drivers behaviour. They are looking for unexpected distraction or fatigue events.

A driver, for example, might have a good record and all of a sudden goes into the ‘amber’ to quote a traffic light analogy used by Darren.

“A green driver that goes into amber might have an incident, he might have a fatigue event, he might not quite be himself. He might not be communicating the way he used to. They are all lead indicators where something might not quite be right for an individual,” he says.

“He could be ill. He could be having a family issue. We’re trying to join all these things together and how we can extract and get the best value out of the information to help us manage and prevent an issue in the first place.”

One driver with an impeccable record returned from holidays and had a series of minor incidents. All of a sudden he had an erratic fatigue pattern coming off him straight after his holidays recalls Darren.

“He was sent for a medical and ended up testing positive for Ross River Fever. He didn’t know. His family didn’t know. It was simply because we used the technology to support the case for a medical and, further outcomes came of that,” Darren says.

“At this point in time we’re looking for patterns and any lead indicators for somebody who isn’t quite where they used to be. We’re always looking for patterns in the data, patterns in behaviour that may lead us to something bigger down the track.”

Ron Finemore Transport has six key operational areas within its business.

These are Brisbane, Orange, Wagga, Wodonga, Derrimut and Corowa. Each of those operational areas has a dedicated fleet assigned to them.

Individual operations officers at each of the sites receives feedback directly from the vehicle they are responsible from the road and is responsible for the welfare for each driver under the Seeing Machines review process.

According to Darren, the operations people are trained in an internal process of effectively contacting the driver and making sure they’re ok should there be a fatigue issue.

“They have full and unfettered responsibility to make sure that the driver isn’t at risk,” he says. “If there is any doubt, we have a process which enables the operations person to instruct the driver to take a break.”

It works extremely well as it puts the responsibility for the events back in the appropriate operational area. Each operation varies in terms of peak activity. Operations personnel know their drivers and what they can and can’t do.

Ron Finemore Transport was of course a natural fit for the nearly three-year, $6.5 million Advanced Safe Truck Concept project and a willing participant. Darren was heavily involved all the way through it.

“We were very active in helping Seeing Machines and Monash collect the data that they needed for it,” he says.

“By engaging drivers and keeping them informed of what we were doing along the way in advance of when all of these things happened our company saw a high participation rate and took home some very valuable information out of it as a result.”

It was the first time technology of this type had been tested in a fleet of trucks during normal business operations according to Associate Director of MUARC Associate Professor Michael Fitzharris who expects drowsiness and distraction will be detected earlier with greater accuracy moving forward.

“Driver Monitoring Systems of this type and sophistication will have significant road safety benefits, not just for trucks but for future passenger vehicles,” he says.

“With driver distraction and drowsiness known to be key contributors to road fatalities and injuries globally, this research will enable the implementation of highly advanced and sophisticated driver monitoring technology that will play a key role in reducing the number of people killed and injured on our roads in the future.”

Accordingly, the study vindicates effective implementation of driver monitoring technology to provide policymakers the opportunity to apply a more personalised approach to managing the risks associated with driver fatigue.

Professor Fitzharris says a re-think of current best practice in managing driver fatigue and distraction levels for commercial drivers is going to allow for major implications for policy.

“Our research at MUARC played a role in seeing the introduction of frontal and head protecting side air bags in all new vehicles, as well as Electronic Stability Control,” he says. “I hope that history can repeat itself with this technology included in all new vehicles here in Australia, and around the world.”

The technology, according to Professor Harris, will also improve the safety of all road users from passenger vehicles to pedestrians and cyclists.

At Christmas time Ron Finemore Transport hires a number of trucks for four to six weeks to help it with peak.

The moment the business gets a hold of an additional  truck for that period it will, without hesitation, put in its own telemetry system, and install Seeing Machines for those six weeks and later rip it all out simply because the company refuses to let its drivers go unprotected by the technology while they’re doing their job.

“That’s how serious that we take it,” Darren says. “It’s not a cheap exercise. But talk about payback. It would be foolish not to have it in the truck and then have an issue and question why we didn’t do it. When you flip it around the other way it’s a very cheap insurance policy.”

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