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Camera is in drivers seat of car looking out at blurred scene of road, traffic lights and other cars during night.

In the last five years more than 150,000 people have been injured and more than 3,600 killed due to drowsy drivers in the United States. A large percentage of those involve shift workers like nurses.

To tackle this problem, Texas A&M University College of Engineering researchers Dr. Tony McDonald and Dr. Farzan Sasangohar in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering are conducting a first-of-its-kind study on intervention techniques.

“Agencies are starting to step in and say that this is a solvable problem; all of these crashes are preventable and we need to take action,” McDonald said.

One group dedicated to doing something is the National Safety Council, which began its “Road to Zero” initiative in 2016 with the goal of eliminating roadway deaths within 30 years. The U.S. Department of Transportation committed $1 million a year for three years to help kick-start the program.

McDonald and Sasangohar received one of these grants, in collaboration with Dr. Nena Bonuel, this year to begin a study on nurses at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Their approach focuses on two methods of intervention. The first is education and training to try and prevent the situation from happening at all, and the second is using available technology to detect when a nurse may be driving drowsy.

“The cars are going to be one of our primary ways of collecting data from the nurses,” McDonald said. “We are going to install data recorders, similar to what you see from insurance companies, that plug into the on-board diagnostic port and collect continuous speed, acceleration and in some cases GPS data.”

According to McDonald, there have been several broad driving studies that have shown changes in speed, braking patterns and steering correlate with drowsy driving, but they need more robust data of these events.

Their collaboration with Houston Methodist Hospital enables a large-scale study involving a representative sample of 300 nurses.

A 2016 study found that one in five sleep-related fatalities in the U.S. happened in Texas, and it’s an issue that isn’t going away any time soon. Houston specifically is a good test bed for this research because it not only has the world’s largest medical center, but also a large number of nightshift workers in other domains such as oil and gas.

“The issues with nightshift-related incidents are not new. About one-fourth of all jobs in the United States are considered shift work type of jobs,” Sasangohar said. “You can’t shut down hospitals and police stations. While the problem has been recognized, there are very few interventional studies on this scale investigating applied solutions. It is our expectation that this study will build a strong foundation for a large nationwide study.”

The reason they believe this study can be impactful where others have fallen short is the caliber of partners they have.

“Both Texas A&M and Houston Methodist are world-class research institutions.” Sasangohar said. “We expect to collect strong preliminary findings to build a solid foundation for future university-hospital collaborations to reduce fatigue-related fatalities among nurses.”

Bonuel, a nurse scientist at Houston Methodist, is helping Sasangohar and McDonald carry out the study. She has more than 25 years of experience working in nursing, and her expertise not only lends credibility to the project, but also has been critical in designing the education part of the program.

She said the study was especially personal for her since she worked 12-hour overnight shifts for many years working in the intensive care unit.

“Often times I had to pull myself off the road and rest at a nearby mall parking lot just to take a nap before I could continue driving home,” she said. “There was one time a police officer knocked on my windshield to check if I was OK. I think this study where we will offer road safety education as well as a technology intervention will keep not only the nurses safe, but at the same time help lessen accidents in the road that could involve other people.”

If the program goes as planned, they hope to expand it to other hospitals as well as other industries that have a significant number of shift workers.

“Once we complete development of this program, we are hoping to distribute it to a much broader audience,” McDonald said. “Certainly, to other hospitals in the area and across the country but also, in the long term, to other industries with a predominant population of shift workers like oil and gas.”