New Jersey Law Combats Drowsy Driving Accidents

New Jersey enacted “Maggie’s Law” in 2003 in honor of 20-year-old Maggie McDonnell, who was killed in 1997 when a driver crosses three lanes of traffic and struck her car head-on. The driver admitted that he’d fallen asleep at the wheel after being awake for 30 hours.

When the case went to trial, the driver’s lawyer argued that since there was no New Jersey law against falling asleep at the wheel, the driver had done nothing wrong. The driver received only a suspended sentence and a $200 fine.

Maggie’s mother, Carole McDonnell, then lobbied for a change in the law to punish drowsy drivers in New Jersey. Now, killing an individual while “fatigued” constitutes vehicular homicide. The law defines “fatigued” as being without sleep for more than 24 consecutive hours. Even if no one is killed, driving while fatigued is a criminal offense.

New Jersey is the only state with a law of this type. However, it can be difficult for state prosecutors to prove that a driver has been up for 24 hours if the driver doesn’t admit to it. Also, drivers can be dangerously drowsy even if they haven’t been up for 24 hours in a row.

More than 11,000 deaths are attributed to drowsy driving for the decade from 2000 to 2010. In comparison, drunk driving statistics show that about 10,000 people die every year in drunk driving accidents.

However, drowsiness may be involved in far more accidents since it’s not as easy to detect as, for example, drunk driving, drug use, texting, or making phone calls while driving.

Laws intended to prevent drowsy driving are difficult to enforce. For example, commercial truck and motorcoach drivers are prohibited from driving more than 11 hours per day and are required to rest 10 hours between shifts, but the laws rely on the drivers to report their own hours.

As with drunk driving, some states try to combat drowsy driving with education.

Massachusetts driving manuals include warning tips about drowsy driving, and many roads have “rumble strips” that warn drivers that they are veering off the road. Tennessee erected billboards asking drivers not to drive drowsy and showing a running total of fatal highway accidents.

The only “cure” for drowsy driving is a good night’s sleep. However, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, drinking two cups of coffee and taking a 15 to 20-minute nap can refresh some drivers for a time.

Turning up the radio, singing, chewing gum, and getting out of the car to move around are not considered effective ways to prevent drowsy driving accidents.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a drowsy driving accident, or in any other kind of vehicle accident, contact a New Jersey personal injury attorney at the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Hasson, P.C.