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.

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 alcohol.

In fact, researchers say driving while drowsy has some of the same hazardous effects on driving skills as driving under the influence, such as:

  • 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.

Enforcing Drowsy Driving Laws

"There are no roadside breath tests for fatigue, and the signs are difficult to spot -- especially in a post-crash environment that raises alertness," says Donaldson.

But that doesn't mean that drowsy driving doesn't leave a trail of evidence that might be brought up in court, says Darrel Drobnich, senior director of government and transportation affairs at the National Sleep Foundation.

Drobnich says there are certain characteristics that investigators can look for that might signal that drowsy driving contributed to an accident, such as:

  • Lack of skid marks
  • Lane weaving
  • Time of day: These accidents peak during the late night and midafternoon hours.
  • Age and sex of driver: Most sleep-related accidents involve people under 26 and men.
  • Work schedule: Shift workers and people who work more than 60 hours a week are much more likely to be drowsy drivers.

In addition, Drobnich says many drowsy drivers admit to police officers after an accident that they were "just sleepy" because they're afraid of being charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

But reckless driving is reckless driving, no matter what the excuse or cause of the impairment, says Drobnich. He says Maggie's law is a major step forward in getting people to recognize fatigue as a serious impairment such as drugs and alcohol.

"We've gotten to a state where people think they have the right to go out and drive even though they've only had two hours of sleep," says researcher Jane Stutts, PhD, of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "This gets the word out that it's not acceptable."

Preventing Drowsy Driving

Researchers say preventing sleep-related accidents takes more than turning up the radio and rolling down the windows.

Drobnich says none of those sorts of tricks has ever been proven effective. Instead, preventing drowsy driving begins with getting enough sleep. Donaldson says many busy young adults work up a sleep deficit throughout the workweek, then they go out late at night on the weekend and are likely to nod off behind the wheel while driving home.

Some tips to avoid sleep-related accidents and drowsy driving include:

  • Planning. Make sure you get a good night's sleep before long drives and include plenty of time for rest stops. A good rule of thumb is to plan on one stop every 100 miles or two hours on the road.
  • Keep an eye on the driver. When traveling in groups have someone in the front seat stay awake at all times.
  • Take a power nap. If you feel drowsy, pull over as soon as it's safe and have a cup of coffee, cola, or another caffeinated beverage. Then take a 15 to 20 minute nap.

But the only real way to prevent sleep-related accidents when driving drowsy is to stop driving.

"People should not drive when drowsy," Stutts tells WebMD. "You are responsible for your behavior."

Show Sources

SOURCES: New Jersey State Assembly. National Sleep Foundation. Gerald Donaldson, senior research director, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Washington, D.C. Darrel Drobnich, senior director of government and transportation affairs, National Sleep Foundation. Jane Stutts, PhD, associate director for social and behavioral research, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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