BORDENTOWN, N.J. -- As if staying alive were not enough of an incentive, motorists in New Jersey have another reason to make sure they are well-rested when they get behind the wheel -- a first-in-the-nation law against driving while drowsy.
Under Maggie's Law, police will not be pulling over drivers whose eyelids look heavy. But the law allows prosecutors to charge a motorist with vehicular homicide, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine, in the event of a deadly crash if there is evidence the accident was caused by sleepiness.
No driver has yet been charged under the law, which went into effect last month and was named for a 20-year-old college student killed in 1997 by a van driver who admitted having been up for 30 hours.
Recent studies estimate 51 percent of motorists feel drowsy behind the wheel, and about two of every 10 drivers say they have fallen asleep while driving in the past year.
"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 nonprofit research organization.
New Jersey is the first state to specifically list going without sleep as a crime, according to Darrel Drobnich, a legislative analyst for the foundation. 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 gambling and skipping sleep before a crash that killed five people on the New York State Thruway outside Rochester.
In 1997, a Virginia judge sentenced a driver 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, followed by an eight-hour break.
Myrna Buiser took a break from driving recently, pausing at a truck stop near the New Jersey Turnpike in Bordentown outside Philadelphia. 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 exhausting road trips. "If I'm traveling across country a lot and through times zones, I'm always quite sleepy."
Like other drivers, Buiser said she appreciated New Jersey's attempt to keep motorists alert and save lives but is not sure the law will keep people from driving when tired.
"I think that you would need to get people thinking all the time about the dangers of doing this," she said. "I would hope it helps, but I don't know if people are just going to do anything until they get arrested themselves."
Safety advocates expect the New Jersey law will lead prosecutors to consider sleep deprivation when investigating accidents and will push other states to crack down on sleepy driving the way many did against drunken driving two decades ago.
Still, they acknowledged that laws alone will not solve the problem.
Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, 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."
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