Can technology be the superhero of human fallibility?

Victoria Laxton explores the potential of fatigue detection systems and technologies in transport domains.

Published on 24 January 2024

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Driving and lifeguarding have alot in common as repetitive activities that demand sustained attention and responsibility for the safety of others.

The job of a lifeguard can often make us think of lazy teenagers sitting by a swimming pool or beach. However, a less-discussed reality that affects many who take on this important task lurks beneath that misconception. A vast amount of time is spent being constantly vigilant and attentive to all swimmers. In these important sit-and-stare jobs like lifeguarding it is an uncomfortable reality that hours of repetitive vigilant monitoring can lead to the mind and body experiencing extreme fatigue that can undermine the effectiveness and well-being of the silent observer.

Fatigue is a condition characterised by severe tiredness or exhaustion. It has an impact on physical, mental, and emotional well-being and goes beyond ordinary symptoms of tiredness. Fatigue can be caused by a number of factors, including a lack of sleep, excessive physical or mental activity, and, in the case of a lifeguard, monotonous (boring) activities or severe heat. Fatigue can have a disastrous effect on our most basic cognitive functions. One area particularly susceptible to fatigue is our visual search skills. In jobs that demand prolonged periods of focused monitoring, like lifeguarding, fatigue can subtly erode our ability to spot potential hazards or recognise critical cues. As exhaustion sets in, our capacity to pay attention, react quickly, and process information is affected. As a result, we can find ourselves missing something that should be obvious, such a swimmer who is having trouble or a distressed child in the water.

We know from research that lifeguards are generally good at identifying swimmers in trouble1 , but despite this skill, lifeguards’ effectiveness in detecting distressed swimmers tends to decline as fatigue takes its toll2. Prolonged periods of intense focus and the strain of continuous surveillance gradually degrade attention and response times, negatively impacting their ability to swiftly recognise and respond to critical situations. This emphasizes the importance of enforcing fatigue management strategies and developing support mechanisms to ensure optimal performance throughout a lifeguard’s shift and eradicating the potential for near misses.

What can we learn about fatigue management from other similar tasks to lifeguarding? Driving a car and lifeguarding may seem worlds apart, but they share some commonalities. Both involve prolonged periods of focused attention and repetitive tasks, which can lead to monotony. Just as a lifeguard’s vigilance can be compromised by fatigue, drivers too can experience decreased alertness, slower reaction times, and impaired decision-making when tired. The consequences of fatigue in these seemingly different contexts highlight the importance of managing and addressing fatigue in any occupation that demands sustained attention and responsibility for the safety of others.

Unlike lifeguards, drivers are starting to benefit from the fast advancements in technology. This includes advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) which alert the driver if they are showing signs of fatigue. Fatigue detection systems in vehicles have emerged as a valuable tool in promoting safety on the roads. These systems rely on a combination of sensors and algorithms to detect signs of driver fatigue, such as drowsiness and inattentiveness3. While the context may differ, there is valuable knowledge that can be transferred from this technology to benefit lifeguards in their demanding roles. By adapting fatigue detection technology, lifeguards could potentially receive alerts or prompts when their vigilance shows signs of waning. Sensors could monitor eye movement, posture, and response times, providing lifeguards with valuable real-time feedback to help combat the effects of fatigue. This transfer of knowledge has the potential to enhance situational awareness and response effectiveness, ultimately ensuring a safer environment for swimmers under their watchful eyes.

Fatigue detection technology, initially designed to safeguard drivers on the road, could be an innovation that will enhance safety, performance and safeguarding in many roles by improving vigilance and prompting faster response times. In the transport sector, LGV and HGV drivers, bus and coach operators, train conductors, and small ship captains, are obvious candidates. But so are pilots controlling delivery drones, and even the emerging role of remote vehicle operators, who are expected to take control of an autonomous vehicle with no-user-in-charge (NUIC) at any given time. The benefits could extend to security personnel tasked with monitoring multiple CCTV screens or remotely supervising access to critical infrastructure, such as air traffic controllers.

In a world where technological advancements are continually reshaping our understanding of safety and performance, the application of driving fatigue detection technology to sit-and-stare occupations like lifeguarding holds immense promise. However, we have yet to understand to what extent advanced tools such as eye movement monitors or other innovative forms of fatigue detection enhance our ability to maintain attention when extremely fatigued in the world outside of driving. If we are to embrace technology as a means of compensating for a human’s fallible attention, we should start with a comprehensive review of these tools adaptability and potential to help guide the fledgling industry to commercial success.

About Advanced Driver Distraction Warning (ADDW) systems

ADDW systems monitor the driver’s level of visual attention to the traffic situation and warns them when they are distracted.

DDAW and ADDW systems have a high potential of saving lives on EU roads; potentially preventing 16.9% of all fatal and serious injuries.

DDAW systems were mandated to be on all new vehicles sold in the EU from July 2022, and ADDW systems from 2024. They are optional on new vehicles sold in the UK. 

‘Drowsy Driver' system standards

Driver Drowsiness and Attention Warning (DDAW) systems are designed to monitor drivers’ levels of drowsiness and warn them when it is no longer safe to be at the wheel.

In 2021 TRL supported the European Commission (EC) to introduce regulation for DDAW and ADDW systems by developing the technical requirements which standardise the accuracy and reliability of these systems, to ensure consistency across the market.

TRL proposed a novel self-certification approach: the manufacturers have to provide evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of their system in detecting a drowsy driver, and alerting that driver effectively at the moment, or prior to, a dangerous level of drowsiness – otherwise known as the DDAW threshold.


1 Laxton, V., Guest, D., Howard, C. J., & Crundall, D. (2021). Search for a distressed swimmer in a dynamic, real-world environment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 27(2), 352.
2 Sharpe, B. T., Smith, M. S., Williams, S. C. R., Talbot, J., Runswick, O. R., & Smith, J. (2023). An Expert-Novice Comparison of Lifeguard Specific Vigilance Performance. Applied Cognitive Psychology.

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