Driving Drowsy Could Land You in Jail
Driving While Sleepy at the Wheel Isn't Just Dangerous, It's Illegal in New Jersey
WebMD News Archive
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
"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
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.
Drowsy Driving Is Reckless Driving
Even if a law specifically criminalizing drowsy driving isn't
on the books in every state, experts say it is generally considered a form a
reckless driving, much like driving under the influence of drugs or
In fact, researchers say driving while drowsy has some of the
same hazardous effects on driving skills as driving under the influence, such
- Impairs judgment. Drowsy drivers often miss road signs or stoplights
and misjudge distances.
- Slows reaction time. Sleepiness or nodding off makes it harder to
react to events going on around you.
- Impairs coordination. Drowsy drivers can't
handle a vehicle as they normally would.
- Increases aggressiveness. Tired, cranky drivers often react differently to other drivers
and may be more prone to road rage and speeding.
A recent survey from the National Sleep
Foundation shows that about 50% of adult drivers say they have driven a vehicle
while feeling drowsy in the past year.