Is it safe to fall asleep in the car?

Photo used for illustration purposes only

by Associate Prof Dr Mohd Shahrul Mohd Nadzir

The writer Associate Prof Dr Mohd Shahrul Mohd Nadzir is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Earth Sciences and Environment, Faculty of Science and Technology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR – It is quite usual for motorists to stop at a petrol station or rest and recreation area to take a nap in their vehicle if they feel drowsy after driving for a number of hours.

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Is it safe to sleep in the car? It can be deadly if the windows are all wound up and the engine is left running.

Many Malaysians also have this habit of waiting in their stationary car for a long stretch of time with the engine and air-conditioning switched on.

In many developed countries, it is an offence for motorists to wait in their car with the engine running and they can be slapped with a compound.

Running your car engine while your car is stationary is not only potentially fatal but harmful to the environment as well as the exhaust emissions contain pollutants.

The primary cause of death of people who fall asleep in their cars is carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide (CO) is the main component of exhaust fumes from vehicles.

Older vehicles pose a higher risk because their mechanical systems do not conform to the established standards, which can potentially cause a leak in the exhaust pipe.

When a high concentration of CO accumulates inside your enclosed vehicle, the risk of death hovers over you without your knowledge as you continue to inhale the odourless and colourless poisonous gas.

The CO level can also rise if the air-conditioning system is not functioning properly, which can cause death while a person is sleeping in the car.

How does CO become lethal? This gas can impede the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen to the body’s cells, including the brain.

When the CO level rises and remains above 70 ppm (parts per million), a person may experience headache, fatigue and nausea.

At a level of between 150 and 200 ppm, it can cause a person to lose consciousness which can lead to death.

In view of our hot weather, it is usual for people to keep their car air-conditioning switched on even if they have to wait in their vehicle for a few minutes.

For the sake of safety, avoid waiting in your car, more so if you have your children with you as you are endangering their lives as well.

The best thing to do is to avoid sleeping in the car. If you badly need to take a nap in your car, make sure the engine is switched off and the windows are rolled down but first find a safe place where you can park your car and rest.

Having an early warning system to detect CO via a small sensor is another way to overcome the issue of CO poisoning.

While proper maintenance of the vehicle’s exhaust system and its emissions will prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, having an additional sensor to detect CO can provide us with an early warning.

Malaysia has reported several cases of death due to CO poisoning (the latest being three college students who, last week, died from carbon monoxide poisoning after falling asleep in their car with the engine running) and in view of this, there is a need to develop new technology to overcome this issue.

Most CO detectors or sensors are designed for use in the house or office but the same sensor technology can be used to develop a sensor for vehicles.

Associate Prof Sawal Hamid Md Ali from UKM’s Electrical Engineering Department in the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment and I are currently developing a micro-sensor system that can overcome the problem of CO gas leakages in vehicles.

Recently, our group succeeded in securing a prototype grant (Ministry of Higher Education) and CREST grant to develop this sensor technology.

It is hoped that this local technology can be applied in future to enhance the safety of motorists and passengers. We also hope to collaborate with the local automotive and manufacturing industries.

In this Industrial Revolution 4.0 era, IoT (Internet of Things)-based sensor technology can convey air quality information to the user via smartphones and also issue an early warning if gas is detected in high concentrations. — BERNAMA