New Monitoring Technology Can Pull a Car Over if the Driver Is Incapacitated

From drowsy drivers to medical emergencies, tomorrow's cars may be able to take over and save lives

Ambulance on it's way to a pulled over car in the USA Photo: Getty Images

Some cars will soon be able to pull over to the side of the road on their own, if they sense the driver is having a medical emergency, has fallen asleep, or is otherwise unresponsive. If this new health monitoring technology proves effective, it could prevent crashes and save lives. Eventually, the technology could even open up new opportunities for people with medical conditions that currently prohibit them from driving.

New features like these are part of an increased focus on using technology to monitor drivers, boosted by a provision in the recently passed infrastructure bill that calls for studying the effectiveness of driver monitoring.

MORE ON Car SAFETY

Although crashes due to driver medical events are uncommon, they can have severe consequences when they do occur. A study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration points out that even though only 1.3 percent of crashes it tracks involve a driver with a medical emergency, those drivers are more likely to be severely or fatally injured. 

Drowsy driving is a bigger problem: A third of people in a 2018 AAA survey said they had driven at least once in the prior month when they were so tired they could barely keep their eyes open. Although it can be hard to measure just how many crashes are due to sleep-deprived drivers, a 2018 AAA study that analyzed video of drivers just before a crash found that 9.5 percent were caused by drowsiness.

Some medical issues can lead to an acute emergency that causes the driver to lose control of their vehicle, says Bonnie Dobbs, a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta who has researched the impact of medical conditions on driving. “For example, an individual with epilepsy, if they have an epileptic seizure. Or it could be someone with diabetes, and they may not have taken their medication,” she tells CR.

A Technological Solution

An increasing number of new vehicles sold in the U.S. can slow down a vehicle within its lane if a driver becomes unresponsive, but they can’t pull over to the side of the road automatically and call for help, and they can’t detect what’s wrong with the driver. But we should expect to see those features in the future, says Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s auto test center.

“More and more new cars can now detect lanes and automate lane changes. Using this capability to protect a driver in an emergency is the logical next step,” he says.

Early versions of these technologies are already appearing on cars in other regions. For example, some Volkswagen Arteon sedans sold in Europe and equipped with the Emergency Assist 2.0 feature will turn on their flashers and pull over to the side of the road if a driver becomes unresponsive. According to the automaker, if the car senses that a driver is not using the accelerator, brake, or steering wheel, it will first try to awaken a driver by sounding alarms and tapping the brakes to “jolt” the driver into awareness. If the driver still doesn’t respond, it will automatically steer itself to the lane furthest from traffic on a multilane road, and bring the vehicle to a stop.

In Japan, Mazda has said it will debut its Co-Pilot system on new vehicles this year. Tamara Mlynarczyk, a Mazda spokesperson, tells CR that the system is “continuously monitoring” the driver’s performance. “In a potential emergency situation where the driver loses consciousness, the system is prepared to intervene and assist the driver or pull the car over to a safer location,” she says. On a multilane road, it may be able to pull the vehicle to the road’s shoulder.

Potential Benefits

In the future, such features may allow people with chronic illnesses that affect driving to drive cars safely, if the systems are proved effective. 

Consider epilepsy. People with the condition may have seizures while driving. They have an accident rate between 1.13 and 2.16 times higher than the general population, according to research from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. As a result, many state motor vehicle agencies prohibit some people with epilepsy from driving. Sometimes, drivers don’t even realize that they’ve had a seizure, says Jacqueline French, MD, the chief medical and innovation officer at the Epilepsy Foundation. “Although some people may believe that they are aware, their awareness is actually clouded.”

In theory, driver health monitoring systems that can sense an emergency and automatically pull a car over could give some people with epilepsy, or other seizure-causing illnesses, the chance to drive. But in order to do so, state laws would need to change—and that is likely to require lots of research first, says French.

“No two seizures are alike, so a very large number of seizures would have to be assessed to determine if the technology was effective,” she says.

For other illnesses—particularly unexpected ones—these systems could automatically notify emergency services in a timely manner, but the design of driver health monitoring technology should take into account the people who are expected to benefit from it, says Dobbs. “What would happen if the technology was needed and it was automatically implemented, and the person behind the wheel was unfamiliar with it and tried to override it?” she asks.

Tips for Safe Driving Today

Even without the latest technology, all drivers should be aware of the dangers of drowsy driving. Read CR’s guide to staying alert behind the wheel

Drivers also can take steps to protect themselves from a medical emergency, according to Jen Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s auto test center and an expert in senior driving safety. That’s especially true for those who may have a known medical condition that could affect them while driving.

 Pull over if you’re not feeling well. “If something doesn’t feel right, pull over,” says Stockburger. That includes if you feel lightheaded, tired, dizzy, or otherwise “off.” That’s especially true if you’re diabetic and may be having a hypoglycemic event, says Dobbs, the family medicine professor at the University of Alberta.

 Take a look at your medications. Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs—including antihistamines, antidepressants, certain blood pressure medications, some anxiety drugs, muscle relaxers, and sleep medications—can make you drowsy. Talk to your doctor if you feel sleepy while driving.

 Keep your phone on you. If you make it a habit to take your phone with you whenever you’re driving—even on short trips—you will be able to call a friend or family member to come get you if you have to pull over because you aren’t feeling well while driving.

 Make sure the SOS button is active. Many new cars come with a button—usually red, and located near the rearview mirror or dome light—that can summon emergency services with a single push. These buttons aren’t calling 911 directly, but rather connect you with a call center operator first who can help you assess the situation and dispatch emergency services only if necessary. One caution: Millions of cars are losing this functionality in 2022 due to cellular network changes. Make sure your car isn’t one of them. If your car doesn’t have this feature, it’s even more important to keep your phone with you whenever you drive.

 Consider sharing your location. You can share your location with trusted contacts from many smartphones. Otherwise, you may want to let a friend or family member know where you’re headed and when you expect to get back. Consider sharing what route you plan to take, as well. “Letting people know where you expect to be and when is especially important in rural or remote areas, or other places where there may not be reliable cellular service,” says Stockburger.

 Evaluate your own driving. “If you find yourself frequently hitting curbs, mixing up the gas and the brake, or getting lost while driving, it may be time to consider alternatives to driving not only for your own safety but also for that of others,” Stockburger says. You may want to have a conversation with friends or family, or to contact the local Council on Aging. AAA also offers evaluations for senior drivers for senior drivers who may doubt their skills behind the wheel.