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Florida Polytechnic University researchers are using tech to reduce distracted driving

Florida Polytechnic University is trying to tackle drowsy and distracted driving in its latest research, the school announced Tuesday.

New research seeks to detect and prevent the two road dangers, which represent one of the main causes of traffic fatalities.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Kanwal Gagneja is heading the effort. She and her team are using a microcomputer, camera and buzzer to create a warning system for drivers whose attention might not be where it should be when they’re behind the wheel — on the road. The computer and camera detect when a driver is closing their eyes often.

“When you’re drowsy, your eyes start to be more often closed than open,” said Eliezer Pla, a computer science senior from St. Petersburg. “A certain percentage of eye closure ratio determines the person might be falling asleep at the wheel. And if the driver constantly hits the threshold, the system would buzz them to keep them awake.”

Gagneja said the students developed a software tool to integrate the camera and buzzer system.

“This constant reminder to pay more attention while driving would potentially help reduce accidents,” Gagneja said.

The research also includes measuring the time drivers spend distracted at the wheel. These distractions include texting, talking on a hand-held phone, eating, applying makeup and talking to backseat passengers, among other possible distractions.

“We are focusing on how often people are not looking at the road,” said computer science senior Lina Brihoum. “The computer will give you a percentage of how much you looked at the road. Let’s say 70% of the time. People will realize they’re not paying as much attention driving as they think they are.”

Distractions and driving under the influence, one of the leading causes of drowsiness, are at the top of the list of growing dangers on the roads, according to a report from AAA. Those dangers are reflected on statistical findings from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which indicate that distracted driving claimed 3,450 lives in 2016 and injured 391,000 people in 2015.

“Not paying attention is the number one cause for accidents. Hopefully this can prevent some crashes from happening,” Brihoum said.

The research comes as Florida lawmakers again are attempting to make distracted driving a primary ticketable offense. Currently, texting while driving is banned, but is only a secondary offense. That means law enforcement officers can only cite the driver for texting while driving if they have committed another traffic infraction. Making it a primary offense would give officers ticketing authority based solely on using a cell phone while driving. 

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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