I wonder where these fines go

NJ Law Targets Drowsy Drivers

Sep 27, 2003 10:33 am US/Eastern
BORDENTOWN, N.J. (AP) Myrna Buiser took a break from driving recently, pausing at a truck stop near the New Jersey Turnpike. It was a long way from where she started in Massachusetts, and even farther from her home in Denver.

"I drive tired probably quite often," Buiser said, explaining that her job as a nursing consultant requires exhaustive road trips. "If I'm traveling across country a lot and through times zones, I'm always quite sleepy."

Buiser is far from alone. Recent studies estimate 51 percent of motorists feel drowsy behind the wheel and approximately two of every 10 drivers said they fell asleep while driving in the past year.

Highway safety advocates are hoping a New Jersey law deters drowsy drivers from hitting the roads. The law, known as Maggie's Law, makes driving while tired a crime in fatal crashes much like driving drunk or high.

"We are so accustomed to being fat and tired and sleepy that it's part of our daily life and we think nothing of getting behind the wheel and driving despite the horrible ramifications of that act," said Marcia Stein of the National Sleep Foundation.

New Jersey is the first state to specifically list going without sleep as a crime, according to Darrel Drobnich, a legislative analyst with the foundation. Named after a 20-year-old woman who died in a 1997 crash, the law allows prosecutors to charge a sleep-deprived driver with vehicular homicide, a second-degree crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Similar bills are pending in New York and have been discussed by lawmakers in Washington state.

Prosecutors across the nation already target drivers whose inability to stay awake cost lives.

In May, the driver of a tour bus taking church groups home from Niagara Falls was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He admitted to gambling and skipping sleep before a crash that killed five people when the bus fell from a 75-foot highway embankment on the New York State Thruway southeast of Rochester.

In a widely reported 1997 case, a Virginia judge admonished a driver and then sentenced him to five years in prison because he fell asleep on his morning commute, killing two people, and then headed to a business meeting.

Federal regulations allow authorities to charge truck drivers under rules that mandate no more than 10 straight hours of driving before taking an eight-hour break.

Safety advocates expect the New Jersey law will force prosecutors to consider sleep deprivation when investigating accidents and will push other states to pass such laws much like the prohibitions against drunken driving were two decades ago.

"It's a long process. I do think other states will pass these laws. This is the way it goes, especially in traffic safety cases. The states pick up on this and try to do it themselves," said Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Even when laws are passed, drivers need to learn the lesson that they can kill by being tired, Stone said.

"It's always very difficult to change people's behavior just by passing a law. You have to educate people, then you have to enforce the law," she said.

Rusty Burris, of Columbia, Mo., said he remembers the lectures about drinking and driving in driver's education classes, but not a word about being asleep behind the wheel.

He remembers more about the day 13 years ago when he went party-hopping after his high school graduation and decided to sleep in his own bed rather than nap at his girlfriend's house.

"I was 90 seconds from home. My thinking was 'I've been up all day, I'm tired. I just want to go home. I'm almost there.' Ninety seconds to go and I fell asleep and because of that my life changed forever," Burris said.

Burris, now paralyzed from the mid-chest down, visits high schools to tell students about the dangers of spinal cord injuries and to remind them to stay alert.

He still can't shake one surprising thought about his accident: "It was just a short 20-, 30-minute drive. I was wide wake, which was surprising because I had been up for over 36 hours."

Sleep experts say that is not surprising, and that many drivers delude themselves into thinking that mental gymnastics can defeat tired reflexes.

Drivers -- even those who admit they need a break from the rigors of the highway -- are skeptical of the New Jersey law and the push to keep awake at all times.

"How do you do it when you wake up, drive to work and you haven't had your morning coffee? Don't tell me you're not tired. Everybody's tired," said Sebastian Pewig, a Baltimore radiologist.

Pewig, who was recently leaving a highway rest area after about an hour stop, had advice for police who want to stop tired drivers: "It's not going to happen," he said.

Dante Johnson climbed into the passenger seat of Pewig's convertible, saying he wasn't tired at all.

"Not today. I do every other day," Johnson said. "I didn't drive today."

"All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you."
Gandolf the Gray