Petrillo & Goldberg Law Blog

Drowsiness can have tragic consequences behind the wheel

When Maria Fernandes, 32, of Newark, New Jersey, died on August 25, she was overcome by fumes from an overturned gas can mixed with carbon monoxide from her running car while she was napping inside it. Her sad demise came as she was trying to make ends meet by working at four jobs, driving from job to job and trying to catch a few roadside hours of sleep. 

While her case was unusual, her circumstances were not. It is, unfortunately, not all that uncommon for people to drive long hours on the road, experience drowsiness and become involved in an accident.

The statistics surrounding drowsy driving in the United States should act a wake-up call for motorists to get a good night’s sleep before hitting the road. The federal government has estimated that more than 100,000 crashes, 40,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities can be blamed on drowsy driving every year. Those figures are on the conservative side; experts believe that drowsy driving is still underreported as a factor behind crashes.

Any motorist who has not had adequate sleep risks falling asleep at the wheel and causing or suffering harm, but the problem is more pronounced among commercial vehicle drivers (many of whom are under pressure to drive farther and faster), shift workers who work long hours or at night, motorists with untreated sleep disorders, or drivers who use sedatives.

The consequences can be particularly devastating and deadly, so commercial vehicle drivers must abide by federal regulations that limit their maximum work week to 70 hours and require them to have minimum periods of non-driving rest. As a result of those regulations, which were passed in 2009, highway fatalities blamed on collisions involving large trucks have dropped by 30 percent.

In New Jersey, a law was passed in 2003 that puts criminal responsibility on drowsy drivers who cause a roadway fatality. Unfortunately, neither federal regulations nor the Garden State’s so-called “Maggie’s Law” prevented the driver of a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer from crashing into a vehicle carrying actor/comedian Tracy Morgan on the New Jersey Turnpike in June, seriously injuring Morgan and killing another passenger riding with him.