Overhead cameras equipped with computer vision are spotting distracted drivers on the road.

What’s new: A system from Melbourne-based Acusensus alerts police when drivers are engaged in risky activities such as using a cell phone, not wearing a seatbelt, or speeding, The New York Times reported.

How it works: The Heads-Up system uses sensors mounted over the road on overpasses, signs, or movable structures. An infrared flash camera captures images through windshield glare, heavy weather, and nighttime darkness. Radar gauges a vehicle’s speed.

  • The camera snaps an image of each passing car and sends it to the cloud, where models analyze it and score the likelihood of various risky behaviors.
  • The system forwards high-scoring images to a central police office that evaluates whether to charge the driver with a legal offense.
  • The system can also identify sections of road where drivers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors to inform changes in infrastructure, law enforcement, or legislation.
  • The company is developing a successor system designed to directly alert officers on patrol and enable them to review images on laptops installed in service vehicles.

Results: New South Wales, Australia, deployed the system in 2019. In its first two years, it contributed to a 22 percent decline in road fatalities and an 80 percent decline in use of mobile phones behind the wheel. An 18-hour assessment along a stretch of road in Missouri that saw an average three and a half crashes daily found that 6.5 percent of drivers used mobile phones and around 5 percent engaged in more than one risky behavior.

Behind the news:  AI is being applied to traffic safety worldwide — and not always by surveilling drivers.

  • By 2024, every new vehicle sold in the European Union will be required to automatically brake in emergencies, stay in a lane, control speed, and detect drowsy or distracted drivers.
  • Numerous Chinese cities along with the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur are using Alibaba’s City Brain platform to ease traffic congestion. The system collects video from intersections and GPS data from cars, which it analyzes to coordinate traffic lights across a metropolitan area.
  • Since 2017, buses in Barcelona have used a computer vision system from Mobileye to identify cyclists, pedestrians, and other potential hazards.

Why it matters: About 1.3 million people worldwide die in road accidents every year, according to the World Health Organization. Many fatalities are associated with speeding, distracted driving, and not wearing seatbelts. AI systems that identify these behaviors can help save lives.

We’re thinking: People tend to buckle up when they see a police car and slow down when they see their current speed flashing on a sign ahead. If cameras looming over the road can save lives — given adequate controls on who has access to the data and how they can use it — it’s worth a try.

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