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Glasses that keep an eye on drowsy driving up for safety gong

Contractor Craig Hemsley wears Optalert glasses as project manager Warren Ashby, of Air Liquide, checks the monitor, which reads fatigue levels.

Contractor Craig Hemsley wears Optalert glasses as project manager Warren Ashby, of Air Liquide, checks the monitor, which reads fatigue levels. Photo: Tony Ashby

THEY probably won't win any fashion awards, but a pair of glasses that detect driver drowsiness and issue an alarm at the first sign of fatigue could win the Melbourne company that makes them a national award for road safety.

The glasses, which use invisible leadlight to monitor eyelid movements at a rate of 500 times a second, are being used by a growing number of transport and mining companies around the world. The companies also use the glasses to remotely monitor their drivers' alertness levels on the road.

Their maker, Optalert, based in Richmond, is also piloting a system that could one day be used by individual drivers.

Optalert's Jim Chadwick said heavy-vehicle drivers were often unreliable judges of fatigue, and were prone to pushing on when they ought to rest.

''We know that the worst people to actually check themselves are the drivers and the operators because they think they're more efficient than what they are,'' said Mr Chadwick, the company's global business development director.

The system's ability to feed real-time data to a driver's supervisor was a way to prevent accidents, he said, although some drivers initially resented being monitored.

''One, we see this as a tool to save lives,'' Mr Chadwick said.

''Number two is to mitigate risk as regards property damage or personal injury. If you've got alert people driving trucks or operating equipment, then your productivity should increase compared to a drowsy workforce.''

Perth-based company Air Liquide began using Optalert last year with its drivers, who spend up to 14 hours a day delivering industrial gas. The system scores a driver's drowsiness between zero and 10, emitting a first warning at 4.5, which is equivalent to a .05 blood-alcohol reading.

Jeffrey Bonser, Air Liquide's supply chain manager, said the company expected drivers to take it upon themselves to rest if the system issued a warning. ''If their score remains at that level, we ask them to pull over at the next safest position.''

The Transport Workers Union's acting national secretary, Michael Kaine, said that driver-monitoring technologies such as Optalert were a legitimate way to detect fatigue, but said they did not address the root problem of drivers being pressured by their employers to spend dangerously long hours behind the wheel.

''With around 330 deaths and over 5300 injuries in truck crashes on Australian roads each year, there is a safety crisis on our roads,'' Mr Kaine said.

Optalert is the only Victorian company in a field of nine contenders vying for the Australian Road Safety Foundation's national award for innovation, to be announced in Sydney on Tuesday. The winner will receive a business development grant of up to $10,000.

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