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Drowsy Driving Traffic Tickets Coming To NY?

Drowsy Driving.  Lots Of It.

The term “drowsy driving” is relatively new to me.  The concept is not.

I’ve always known what it was.  Who hasn’t had at least a few instances when they were driving and fighting off falling asleep?  Personally, I open the window and try to find some kind of 80’s music I can easily blast and sing along with.  Sometimes (and I have no idea why) I open the window and scream the Atlanta Braves/Florida State Tomahawk Chop chant (political correctness issues aside) over and over.  The best way to really wake up is that extreme adrenaline jolt you get after you actually do nod off for what is likely a millisecond and then come back to in an absolute panic.

The point is I know what it feels like to fight sleeping at the wheel.  And I’m not alone.  In 2010, AAA Foundation researchers reported that 41 percent of drivers admitted to having “fallen asleep or nodded off” while driving at some point in their lives. More than one out of every four drivers admitted to having driven when they were sleepy and had a hard time keeping their eyes open. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2009 poll reported one out of every six fatal accidents involved drowsy driving.  Insufficient sleep itself is reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be a public health epidemic.

Drowsy Driving in the News

After eight weeks of testimony, a Bronx jury began deliberating last Tuesday in the manslaughter case of Ophadell Williams-the driver of a bus that crashed last year on Interstate 95, killing 15 passengers and severely injuring many more.

The central issue in the case is whether Mr. Williams so dangerously fatigued when he got behind the wheel that he should be found criminally liable.  This is obviously no simple traffic violation matter.  The severity of a situation like this is evident–15 fatalities and 15 potential years in jail.

Florida, New Jersey and Texas, among other states, have also cited drowsiness in criminal cases against drivers.  In Virginia last month, a bus driver was convicted of involuntary manslaughter based on evidence that he fell asleep before a crash that killed four passengers and injured many more.

Prosecution of Drowsy Driving

Despite agreement that drowsy driving is a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed, there are some significant hurdles and issues to overcome.

1. How do we test for it?  A blood-alcohol test can show whether a driver was drunk. Accident recreation experts can offer insight into speed traveled and certain unsafe movements.  Cell phone records might show whether someone was texting or otherwise driving while distracted.  Drowsiness however can come and go and the spectrum ranging from completely wide awake to fast asleep is one giant slippery slope with lots of grey area in between.

2.  How do we do we decide when it’s risen to the level of criminal negligence?  If a CDL holder fakes a logbook to stay on the road longer or there’s clear evidence that someone worked all day and stayed out all night, maybe there’s a case.  But what if the same person had done the same thing a thousand times before without incident?  What if that person offered a string of witnesses swearing to the defendant’s legendary ability to get by with very little sleep?  Don’t some people just need more sleep than others and how do we factor that into their potentially reckless or negligent decision making?  What if someone feels perfectly fine/wide awake when he gets in the car but then starts falling asleep?   There are plenty of questions and you wonder about getting to “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

3. Will it matter how or why a driver is drowsy?  The new mom who is generally sleep deprived, ER doctors working ridiculous shits and saving lives, emergency responders after an emergency which extends their shift, someone working multiple jobs and caring for a sick relative…are we prepared to prosecute these people for driving to/from work?  Should the law judge these people differently?  Don’t all people have an equal understanding of their level of fatigue and aren’t all drivers equally dangerous when fatigued despite the degree of social acceptability for their drowsiness?  We can not leave it up to a jury to determine whether someone had “a good reason” for being drowsy any more than we look at the reason behind someone drinking or taking medication before getting behind the wheel.  We tell those people to just not do it–will we be able to treat drowsy driving the same?

It’s definitely an interesting discussion and I expect we’ll be hearing more and more about it.  If anyone has any thoughts on the matter, comments are always welcome.

Scott Feifer