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July|August 2005
City of Blight By Geoffrey Gagnon
The Fourth Man By Margot Sanger-Katz
A Place to Crash By Aaron Dalton
A Man's Home Is His Castle By Elizabeth Austin
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon

A Place to Crash

The dangers of driving while drowsy.

By Aaron Dalton

I'M SITTING IN THE PASSENGER SEAT of a black 2002 Mercury Sable going 60 miles per hour on Route 81 outside Harrisburg, Penn. The driver, Jerry Edwards, a vice president for business development at Attention Technology, is staring out the driver's side window with his left eye while covering his right eye with one hand. A couple of seconds go by.

"This cannot be safe," I think.

The radar-detector-sized device called a DD850 sitting on the dashboard lets out a beep, and a row of red lights starts blazing.

"What do you know?" Jerry says, switching the device to standby. "It works."

DD850 is a product designed by Richard Grace, formerly a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, to prevent drivers from falling asleep on the road. The device works by sending rays of infrared light at your eyeballs and then measuring with a little camera whether you absorbed or reflected the light. While the water on an open eye absorbs the infrared light (that's why photographs sometimes give people "red eye"), the lid of a closed eye reflects the light. DD850 measures the percentage of time that a driver's eyes are closed. When that shut-eye figure hits 12 percent, the alarm signals that it's time to pull over and take a break.

In one study done by the National Transportation Safety Board, 58 percent of heavy-truck crashes investigated involved driver fatigue, and the problem extends to other vehicles, too. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's most recent estimates are that drowsy driving annually results in 100,000 crashes and 1,550 deaths. Those numbers are conservative, though, because 10 states didn't have fatigue listed as a cause of accidents when their statistics were compiled. Even in states where fatigue can be listed and is a likely factor, investigators can list other causes like driver inattention as the cause of the crash. Clear indications that the driver fell asleep, like the total absence of skid marks before the crash site, are rare.

THE FIRST STATUTE SPECIFICALLY TO MENTION DROWSY DRIVING was passed in 2003. New Jersey's Drowsy Driving Act explicitly allows a jury to consider a driver's drowsiness as a basis for finding him reckless if he was awake for 24 hours prior to causing a fatal crash. This bill, known as Maggie's Law, was named for 20-year-old Maggie McDonnell, who was killed when a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel crossed a median and hit Maggie's car head on. Though the driver of the other car admitted he had been up for 30 hours straight, the judge refused to allow the jury to deliberate on the driver's sleep deprivation, and he received only a $200 fine.

The point of Maggie's Law was to make driving while sleepy a crime akin to driving while drunk. According to sleep researchers, the two conditions share many similarities, and, in some ways, drowsy driving is more insidious. "There are no countermeasures when you fall asleep," explained David Dinges, a professor who studies sleep at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. "You don't hit the brakes or swerve."

In addition, it's much harder for law enforcement officials to tag a driver as dangerously tired than as dangerously drunk. There's no breath test for sleepiness, and a cop holding a DD850 device wouldn't do much good. The short-term adrenaline rush from an accident or from being pulled over would likely have drivers wide-eyed and jumpy.

Fatigue also varies. Many people get sleepy after being awake for 14 hours or less, depending on how much sleep they've gotten in previous days and what time of day or night they are driving. McDonnell's killer admitted how long he had been awake, but many drivers also might lie, especially if they got wise to the potential penalties of drowsy driving. "If a guy is charged with homicide under Maggie's Law, you can bet he will say that he was in the sleeper berth for part of the time that his truck was loading and unloading," said Jeffrey Burns, the national transportation counsel for Parents Against Tired Truckers.

Still, publicity about legislative reform like Maggie's Law might do some good. Right now, few people see drowsy driving as risky. People boast of how little sleep they get, and there are far fewer social norms against driving home exhausted from work than against driving home drunk. Some truckers talk openly about taking "West Coast turnarounds," benzedrine pills, so named for their theoretical potential to let a trucker make a cross-country round trip without stopping for so much as 40 winks. The folk singer Jim Croce slipped a romantic reference to the pills into "Speedball Trucker," his ode to devil-may-care driving.

TO DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM, some state governments are considering bills based on Maggie's Law. Others are being more original. Massachusetts is developing a bill that criminalizes drowsy driving and trains police on how to recognize signs of it. States could also mandate that cars come equipped with eyelid-measuring devices like the DD850 that feed information into airplane-like black box data storage systems. Post-crash investigators could then pull the data to see if a driver in an accident had dozed.

But the real goal is to stop drowsy-driving crashes before they occur. Besides legislation, publicity about it, or those shoulder rumble-strips that jolt drivers awake, the simplest, most enjoyable option would be for drivers to get more sleep.

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