Driving While Drowsy a Crime in New Jersey

New Jersey has criminalized drowsy driving. That's right; not drunk driving…drowsy driving. It is the first such law in the country.

Drowsy driving is a concern for employers who have workers on the nation's roads, both as drivers and as members of road construction crews.

A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that highway incidents were the most frequent type of fatal workplace event in 2002. Although fatal highway incidents are down about 3 percent, they account for about a quarter of all fatal work injuries.

Many of those fatal injuries can be attributed to drowsy drivers. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit research organization, 1,500 people are killed and 71,000 injured in car accidents caused by sleep-deprived drivers.

New Jersey's law, which is known as Maggie's Law, took effect in August. A drowsy motorist who causes a fatal accident can be charged with vehicle homicide, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $100,000.

Driving while tired is just as risky as driving drunk, according to Robert Koenigsberg, CEO of SleepQuest, a Redwood City, Calif., company that treats people with sleep disorders. While the majority of people would never consider driving drunk, he says, they will drive while exhausted. He cites a recent study from the National Sleep Foundation that showed 20 to 30 percent of drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel.

"We are so accustomed to being fatigued 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.

A study by the Stanford Sleep Disorders and Research Center compared driving reaction time performance of individuals with sleep disorders to individuals whose blood alcohol concentrations above the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle. The study found that individuals with sleep disorders actually reacted more slowly than individuals with high blood alcohol concentrations.

And legislators, prosecutors and judges are beginning to go after drowsy drivers with the same zeal they've shown toward drunk drivers. New York and Washington are looking at legislation that would criminalize drowsy driving, while in Virginia, a judge sentenced a drowsy driver, who fell asleep at the wheel and killed two people, to a prison term. In New York, the driver of a tour bus who fell asleep at the wheel following a reported 30-hour gambling binge in Niagara Falls, killing five people, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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