New Jersey Cracks Down on Drowsy Driving

 

New Jersey lawmakers and highway safety advocates hope the state's new "drowsy driving" law the first in the nation -- will be a wake-up call to drivers who hit the road when they're tired and cause more than 100,000 accidents per year nationwide.

The law, which took effect Sept. 1, aims specifically at fatal accidents involving sleepy motorists estimated at about 1,500 a year nationwide by allowing such drivers to be charged with vehicular homicide. That offense is punishable in New Jersey by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

The new measure defines drivers as "knowingly fatigued" if they've been awake more than 24 consecutive hours. It amends the state's previous vehicular homicide law to say that driving in this condition constitutes recklessness although it doesn't permit police to pull over drivers who are merely seen yawning behind the wheel.

Even proponents concede the law will be tough to enforce.

"The major problem with drowsy driving is one of proof, because, unlike alcohol or substance abuse behind the wheel, there's no trace element by blood test or some other means to determine if you were tired," said Bob Farley, counsel for New York state Sen. Vincent Leibell, a Republican, who is chief sponsor of similar legislation in that state.

But Farley said Leibell and other proponents believe that, though it may be difficult, drowsy driving laws can be enforced at least some of the time.

"Can you prove it? Sure," he said. "You can put in testimony that this person hasn't slept for four days or that they have a propensity to drive while sleepy. You can do it through testimony, though it's not as easy to prove."

Every state and the federal government currently regulate commercial "hours of service," for example, with rules that restrict how long truck drivers may be on the road. But until now, this type of regulation had never extended to private drivers, said Matt Sundeen, a transportation policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Drowsy driving accidents are only a small subset of the estimated 1.5 million crashes caused by distracted driving behaviors, such as talking on a cell phone, eating or fiddling with the radio. But they cost dearly: an estimated 71,000 injuries on top of the 1,500 deaths annually, said Mantill Williams, spokesman for the national AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

A 2002 survey by the Washington, D.C.-based National Sleep Foundation reports that nearly two in 10 drivers say they have actually fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year.

Highway safety advocates hope other states and perhaps the federal government will follow New Jersey's lead in criminalizing drowsy driving.

Besides the effort in New York, thus far unsuccessful, highway safety officials have discussed the issue in Washington state for several years. Concern over how to enforce such a measure has stalled action in both states.

"I think someday you'll see this as a national law. I think you're going to have a lot of states considering it," said New Jersey state Sen. Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat. He was primary sponsor of the legislation known as "Maggie's Law," for Maggie McDonnell, a college student killed in 1997 by a driver who admitted to being awake for 30 hours before he crashed into her car.

Her mother, Carol McDonnell, approached Sweeney about the legislation and is now traveling around the country speaking with advocacy groups in Louisiana, Florida and Colorado about pushing potential legislation in those states. None has been introduced so far, however.

"A driver asleep at the wheel is more dangerous than a drunk driver," McDonnell told Stateline.org. "At least if you're a drunk driver you might have some sort of reflex. But if you're asleep you have none ... At that point the car is a weapon."

Still, the reform may face a tough slog. Even in New Jersey, the Department of Highway Safety did not endorse the bill or take an active role in its debate.

"I think at the very least it's an important thing to raise awareness on the issue. That's not getting at how effective I think it'll be because only time will tell," said Bob Gaydosh, spokesman for the department.

And highway safety advocates such as the AAA Foundation and the Governors Highway Safety Association said they are not focusing their efforts on drowsy driving, in part because of their tight budgets.

"Highway safety funding is extremely limited," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "We spend a lot more money on the construction side of highways than we do on the safety side." Even so, Adkins added, "We'd like to see additional funds put toward distracted driving and drowsy driving." 

 
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