Should it Be Illegal to Drive While Sleep-Deprived?

by tylercook on August 21, 2013

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Getting behind a vehicle while sleep deprived has been an increasing problem among U.S. drivers. It has become such a problem, in fact, that the legalities of driving while drowsy have been called into question. While some lawmakers want to make it illegal to drive without adequate rest, others believe a “driving-while-drowsy” law would be almost impossible to enforce. This has caused the subject to be one of hot debate.

Sleep Deprivation Among the U.S. Population

According to ABC News, it is estimated that 250,000 Americans drive while sleep deprived every day. This isn’t without risk: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports more than 6,000 people die each year in accidents in which sleepiness is a factor. In fact, one in six accidents is believed to be caused by a driver’s lack of sleep. This is lower than the number of accidents caused by drunk drivers each year, but greater than the number of accidents caused by texting, talking on cell phones or engaging in other acts that lead to driving while distracted.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can be the result of staying up for an extended amount of time, such as 24 hours or longer. But it can also be the result of consistently getting too few hours of sleep a night. It is recommended that adults get between seven and eight hours of sleep nightly; fewer hours can lead to sleep deprivation.

The effects of sleep deprivation can mimic the effects of alcohol. Sleepiness can lead to delayed reaction, short attention span, feeling foggy and an inability to focus. According to US News, a study performed on people who hadn’t slept for nearly 20 hours found that the participants had a reaction time 50 percent slower than their well-rested counterparts. This inability to react quickly isn’t the only danger when behind the wheel: as ABC News reports, sleep deprivation can also lead to micro-sleeps, essentially 20-30-second time periods in which one nods off.

The New Jersey Law

While a few states have successfully prosecuted people who caused fatal accidents as a result of drowsiness, New Jersey is the only state with an actual law that makes driving while sleepy a felonious offense. Maggie’s Law, according to US News, allows for anyone who causes a fatality after being awake for 24 hours straight to be prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter. The law has seen mixed reviews, with many believing people should be prosecuted for any amount of sleepiness, as well as for accidents that don’t result in fatalities.

The Problems With a Law

On paper, a law prohibiting sleepy driving seems like a no-brainer: if this sort of law could save lives, why shouldn’t it be on the books? However, the problem lies in the authorities’ ability to actually enforce the law and prove that an offense has occurred. Sometimes, enforcement may be simple: someone may admit that they dozed off or haven’t slept for a set number of hours. But when a confession isn’t made, it can be difficult to find evidence of wrongdoing. While drinking and driving can be proven with blood alcohol content; speeding can be proven by radar, and texting while driving can be proven through cell phone records, there is no concrete item that can prove sleep deprivation.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the need for sleep is determined on an individual basis: one person may be highly functioning with only four hours of sleep a night, whereas others may need more than 10 just to feel human. Hence, the issue is grey, while most authorities can only successfully enforce laws that are black and white.

How to Drive Safer Without a Law

Even with no law forcing one to abide by a specific sleep cycle, it is possible to drive more safely. Steps can be taken: use a designated driver when tired; drive with a friend (using the buddy system to help keep the driver alert); heed the warning on medications that list drowsiness as a side effect, and pull over when feeling drowsy. Furthermore, a person should not assume that they are alert just because they have ingested coffee or other caffeine-laden drinks. Drivers should also take special precaution when driving long distances: even if well rested, the monotony of the road can induce sleep.

Driving while sleepy is dangerous, whether it is illegal or not. Luckily, it is one of life’s dangers that is completely preventable by each driver.


Paul Bolton focuses his independent freelance writing career on transportation, shipping, car mechanics, the auto industry, trucking and other kindred topics; to learn more about the ins and outs of trucking transportation visit Next Exit Logistics.




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