Driving Drowsy Could Land You in Jail

Driving While Sleepy at the Wheel Isn't Just Dangerous, It's Illegal in New Jersey

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 1, 2003 -- Didn't sleep well last night and have a long drive ahead of you? You might want to think twice before getting behind the wheel if you don't want to end up in jail, or even dead for that matter.

New Jersey legislators recently passed the nation's first law that specifically named driving while drowsy as a criminal offense, and many other states may soon follow suit, including New York.

It's unlikely that cops will start pulling over drivers with droopy eyelids and charge them with a "DWD." But experts say drowsiness and driver fatigue are increasingly viewed as a criminal offense in courtrooms across the country under existing reckless driving and vehicular homicide laws.

"What's driving this is a recognition that has been building in the research community for many years and has finally made both enforcement officials and legislatures aware that sleep deprivation and drowsy driving is a pervasive public health problem that has gone generally unrecognized," says Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Donaldson and other sleep and traffic safety advocates say they hope New Jersey's "Maggie's Law" will spur a public debate on the issue of drowsy driving and help people become more aware of the seriousness of the problem.

"Maggie's Law"

Maggie's Law states that a sleep-deprived driver qualifies as a reckless driver who can be convicted of vehicular homicide. It's named in honor of a 20-year-old college student, Maggie McDonnell, who was killed when a driver -- who admitted he hadn't slept for 30 hours and had been using drugs -- crossed three lanes of traffic and struck her car head-on in 1997.

When the case went to trial, the jury was deadlocked. In a second trial, the defense argued that because there was no law against falling asleep at the wheel in New Jersey, the driver did nothing wrong. The judge accepted this argument, and the driver received only a suspended jail sentence and a $200 fine.

That decision prompted Maggie's mother, Carole McDonnell, to lobby for a law to punish drowsy drivers in New Jersey. Maggie's Law defines fatigue as being without sleep for more than 24 consecutive hours and makes driving while fatigued a criminal offense.