Is Drowsy Driving as Dangerous as Impaired Driving?

Drowsy driving is a term used to describe driving while sleepy or fatigued. Drowsy driving usually happens when a driver has not slept enough. However, in some cases, drowsy driving can be the result of a sleep disorder, medications, or being overworked. Drowsy driving is a significant problem — the risk, danger, and sometimes tragic consequences of drowsy driving are especially concerning. In fact, studies have shown that going too long without sleep can affect your ability to drive the same way that drinking too much alcohol can lead to impairment. According to some studies, being awake for 24 hours is akin to having a blood content (BAC) of 0.10 percent, which is above legal limit of 0.08 percent in all states except Utah (which is 0.05 percent). When a driver is tired, reaction times, awareness of hazards, and the ability to pay attention lower and traffic collisions are more likely.

In a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), every year, there are about 100,000 crashes involving drowsy driving reported to the police. Other studies suggest the numbers to be higher than 300,000. In the same report, drowsy driving crashes were reported to result in more than 1,550 fatalities and 71,000 injuries.

Characteristics of Drowsy Driving

Signs of fatigue can be hard to identify. However, drowsy drivers can exhibit the some of the same physical symptoms as impaired drivers, which can include sleepiness, dizziness, irritability, slowed reflexes and responses, and impaired decision-making and judgment. As such, a drowsy driver, much like a drunk driver, might swerve, drift into other lanes, miss traffic signals, or unintentionally violate other traffic laws. Similarly, a drowsy driver can also show signs of physical impairment like red or watery eyes and slurred speech. As the result of fatigue, some people also experience “micro-sleep,” which involves short, involuntary periods of inattention.

It goes without saying that distracted driving can be very much like driving under the influence, and certainly can be as dangerous. It is easy to see how and why an officer might mistake a drowsy driver for a drunk driver.

Consequences of Drowsy Driving

People get pulled over for drowsy driving because it resembles drunk driving, but can a driver get a DUI for drowsy driving? The answer is no, unless drugs (prescription, illicit, or recreational) or alcohol cause the drowsiness.

When drowsy driving leads to reckless driving, a driver can be arrested, charged and convicted of California Vehicle Code section 23103. Under the law, a person who drives in “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of other people or property” can be charged with misdemeanor “reckless driving.” Driving while drowsy or fatigued can certainly qualify as driving in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others, even if it doesn’t involve alcohol or drugs.

Drivers convicted of reckless driving will be punished by up to 90 days in jail or by a fine of up to one $1,000, or by both that fine and imprisonment.

If a driver injures someone while driving recklessly in California, they can be subject to California Vehicle Codes sections 23104, which can result in a minimum of 30 days in jail, up to six months in jail, and up to a $1000 fine. Under section 23105, f the reckless driving results in “certain injuries” including loss of consciousness, concussion, or bone fracture, a driver can face a felony conviction resulting in up to three years in jail.

In 2003, the New Jersey legislature enacted a law known as “Maggie’s Law.” The bill, named after a young college student, Maggie McDonnell, who died after a tired driver collided with her car, intended to make drowsy driving a crime under the state’s existing vehicular manslaughter framework. The other driver had not slept for 30 hours and fell asleep at the wheel. The state charged him with vehicular homicide, but because fatigued driving was not a crime, he was acquitted and fined only $200. Vehicle manslaughter can apply if a driver has been awake for more than 24 hours, gets behind the wheel, and causes a fatality. Other states have followed suit in cracking down on distracted driving.

In California, a driver who acts negligently while driving, commits a traffic violation, and kills someone as a result, is subject to vehicular manslaughter charges. Drowsy driving is negligent and can certainly cause a driver to engage in a traffic violation, such as running a red light, or possibly collide with a pedestrian while running that red light. Drowsy drivers who kill as a result of their drowsy driving are subject to up to six years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.

Drowsy drivers who cause traffic collisions can be civilly liable for all damages incurred in the crash. Civil liability can include expenses to fix the other vehicle, medical expenses for injuries, or lost wages.

No one person is immune from fatigue; in fact, many drivers admit to having driven while too tired. It is essential to recognize the signs of drowsy driving and try to mitigate them. Every driver owes a responsibility to other drivers on the road, and the best way to honor that responsibility is to drive carefully and stay off the road if too tired.

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