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Drowsy driving remains an elusive highway dilemma

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 11, 2013 at 8:18 pm •  Published: May 11, 2013

New Jersey is the only state that has successfully passed legislation addressing drowsy driving, according to Dan Brown, an Atlanta attorney and member of the National Sleep Foundation board of directors. But he noted that "Maggie's Law" doesn't fully solve the problem because prosecutors must show that a driver had been awake for 24 consecutive hours to prove possible recklessness, which is often a difficult proposition.

New Jersey court officials didn't have statistics available on the number of arrests or successful prosecutions since the law was enacted in 2003.

Massachusetts state Sen. Richard Moore said he considered legislation after a constituent's son was killed in a 2002 drowsy driving crash. But, Moore said, "It's not as easy as drunken driving; there's not a good deal of research." Instead, Massachusetts is including early warning tips in driving manuals, and there is an effort to add rumble strips that warn drivers when they are drifting off the road when state highways are resurfaced, he said.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says while sleep is the best cure, drinking two cups of coffee, followed by a 15-to-20-minute nap, can refresh some drivers for a short period of time. Things like turning up the radio volume, singing loudly, chewing gum or eating, and getting out of the car and running around are not effective.

"There's not a way to legislate against sleepiness," said Bruce Hamilton, manager of research and communications at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which instead focuses on public education campaigns and issuing brochures advising on the dangers.

Last summer, drivers in Tennessee's four largest cities saw message boards imploring them to not drive while drowsy, along with a running tally of highway fatalities in that state.

Mark Rosekind, a National Transportation Safety Board member who formerly directed a sleep research center at Stanford University, says it's a pervasive problem that requires a culture change to fix.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study this year that found 4 percent of U.S. adults nodded off or fell asleep at least once while driving in the previous month.

"For some reason people in our culture think it's OK to lose sleep and get behind the wheel," Rosekind said. "It's just as bad as drinking and driving. As far as public awareness, drowsy driving is in the dark ages compared to that, but it's just as dangerous.

"The issue has been around for a while and we need to get the word out. Clearly it has not penetrated our culture."