Should Georgia Follow the Lead of Other States in Criminalizing Drowsy Driving?
Sergio Bichao was driving home during twilight hours after not sleeping for more than thirty hours. Although he was exhausted as he drove home from his college campus, he did not stop and sleep. When he fell asleep at the wheel, he crashed into the rear of another vehicle transporting a young child. His chest slammed into the steering wheel and the windshield shattered.
Fortunately, everyone involved in this drowsy driving crash escaped without serious injury, but this is the exception rather than the rule. One in six traffic deaths are caused by drowsy driving according to AAA. This high number of fatal sleep deprivation-related collisions is predictable given that sixty percent of adults concede that they have operated a motor vehicle while too sleepy to drive safely while 37 percent admit to actually nodding off while driving during the previous year according to a study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation.
Because the magnitude of risk posed by drowsy drivers is comparable to motorists operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, some states have made drowsy driving a criminal offense. New Jersey was the first state to pass such a law by defining a drowsy driver as a motorist who had not slept during the prior 24 consecutive hours before being involved in a fatal collision. The law permits a drowsy driver involved in a fatal collision to be convicted of vehicular homicide. While Georgia has not yet passed a specific criminal statute aimed at drowsy driving, a growing number of states have enacted such laws.
The pattern of making drowsy driving a crime if it results in a collision that causes serious injury or a traffic fatality represents an acknowledgement that the danger is similar to that posed by drunk drivers. Sleep deprived drivers exhibit diminished reaction times, impaired coordination, faulty judgment and heightened states of irritability and anger, which can lead to road rage and aggressive driving practices.
Xue Ming, a sleep medicine doctor at Rutgers Medical School, indicates that people need seven to nine hours of continuous sleep to be completely alert when operating a motor vehicle. However, the National Sleep Foundation study found that the average driver only averages six hours of sleep per night. According to Ming, the conflicting demands of work, school, parenting and other responsibilities that lead to sleep deprivation are compounded by the fact that seventy million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder.
The situation is even more troubling when one considers that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 8.5 million people in the U.S. take prescription sleep aids that may continue to cause drowsiness when drivers leave home the morning after ingesting the medications. Prescription sleeping medicines play a complicated role in the drowsy driving epidemic because their effects on driving ability are not universal for all drivers. For example, women may be more likely than men to experience drowsiness the morning after taking a sleep pill because they typically are smaller.
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