Commentary

I think every vehicle should have a “Gurney Bubble.”

A small bulge built into the roof of Ford’s sleek ’60s-era GT40 Le Mans car, the Gurney Bubble was designed to accommodate race driver Dan Gurney’s lanky frame.

However, we need Gurney Bubbles to house our huge heads. Why? Thanks to our massive egos, we continually deny our own mortality.

Need proof? Look at the calendar. It’s Drowsy Driving Prevention Week.

But is this really necessary? If you don’t sleep, you get tired. If you get tired, you make mistakes. Make mistakes behind the wheel, people die.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., drowsy drivers kill more than 1,500 Americans every year. A report issued this week by the National Sleep Foundation says the actual total likely is higher because of regional disparities in data collection.

Sleep-related crashes also go unnoticed at street level because many accident investigators lack the training to spot them, the report says.

New Jersey deserves a nod for enacting Maggie’s Law, named for 20-year-old Maggie McDonnell, who was killed in a 1997 head-on involving a van driver who fell asleep at the wheel. The legislation allows prosecutors to charge drowsy drivers with vehicular homicide.

Sound severe? Not when scientific studies equate drowsy driving with DUI.

Drivers who have gone without sleep for 24 hours experience the same level of impairment as someone with a blood-alcohol level of .10% – at which point you are drunk in every state in the union.

Just last year, a research project co-sponsored by NHTSA, Virginia Tech University and the Virginia Transportation Research Council determined drowsiness increases crash risk by at least a factor of four.

We all know the warning signs. No amount of fresh air or loud music can keep those eyelids from drooping, or hold up our enormous bobbing noggins.

Need more proof of our species’ arrogance? The NSF study points to driver education manuals that suggest abstaining from meals before driving and shifting one’s gaze from side to side.

But neither of these measures have any effect on drowsiness, says the NSF, which advocates – surprise! – pulling over.

Credit the auto industry with developing technologies to remind us that getting off the road at the right time is a sign of strength, not weakness. Auto makers such as Audi, BMW and Nissan have systems that trigger cockpit alarms if a vehicle unexpectedly drifts out of its lane.

Saab is pushing the envelope further with its experimental “Driver Attention Warning System,” which doesn’t wait for erratic driving patterns to develop.

Using miniature infrared cameras aimed at the driver’s eyes, the system tracks and analyzes eyelid movement. When blinking rates reach a prescribed threshold, a chime sounds and the text warning – “Tired?” – appears on the instrument panel.

And if there is no change in the driver’s behavior, the system emits a series of spoken messages, escalating in urgency: “You are tired” and “You are dangerously tired – stop as soon as it is safe to do so!”

Safe to say, if this system goes into production, it will be welcome a comedown. Because our bubble needs bursting.

emayne@wardsauto.com