Driver drowsiness is a major cause of accidents, so it's not surprising that a variety of technologies have been developed for its detection. Most of these systems require the use of prominent hardware such as eye-tracking cameras, reactive testing devices, or even Google Glass. A team from Washington State University Spokane, however, has developed a system that detects drowsy drivers through inexpensive electronics that monitor movement of the steering wheel.

The system was developed through a study in which 29 test subjects were placed on a 10-day night shift schedule to induce moderate levels of fatigue. Those people regularly performed an alertness test known as the psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), plus they spent four half-hour sessions on a driving simulator during each shift.

When the results of their PVTs were cross-referenced with data gathered by the simulator, it was discovered that variability in both steering wheel movements and lane position were the two best indicators of fatigue. Moreover, the researchers found that relatively minute amounts of steering wheel variability were sufficient to predict the onset of fatigue, before it got to the point where the car was actually drifting out of its lane.

"We wanted to find out whether there may be a better technique for measuring driver drowsiness before fatigue levels are critical and a crash is imminent," said Prof. Hans Van Dongen. "Our invention provides a solid basis for the development of an early detection system for moderate driver drowsiness."

According to the university, the system utilizes low-cost parts that could be built into new cars, or installed as an aftermarket accessory.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention.