Bergen County DWI Update: Could Drivers Someday be Arrested for Drowsy Driving Just Like DUIs Today?

Today, it’s not uncommon for a fatigued driver to be stopped by a New Jersey State Police trooper for failure to maintain a lane, possibly caused by drinking and driving. But unlike a motorist who fails a field sobriety test and then blows over 0.08 on a breathalyzer test, a drowsy driver has a good chance of getting off with a warning.

Now, no one will argue that nodding off on the highway is a dangerous and potentially deadly situation for any driver, but does it rise to the level of drunken driving and drug DUI? Here in the Garden State it is already a criminal offense when drowsy driving leads to a fatal traffic accident. But in some circles, populated by various experts and law enforcement officials, the desire still exists to penalize drowsy drivers to the same extent as those motorists found guilty of driving while under the influence of alcohol or prescription medication (also known as drug DUI).

There are facts to bakc this up. in a study dating back to 1995, AAA Mid-Atlantic Inc. found that driving with no sleep for 24 hours was akin to having a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 percent, more than the legal limit for DWI in New Jersey. Around that same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that drowsy driving was to blame for about 100,000 crashes, more than 70,000 injuries and nearly 1,600 fatalities annually across the U.S.

Consider the similarities, as many experts have. While driving home tired after working the graveyard shift, a driver might try to squeeze in a few extra miles instead of stopping at a rest area. Bleary-eyed and perhaps not on top of his or her game, it is possible for a motorist to appear drunk on the road. The same can be said of long distance driving with not enough shuteye time.

As New Jersey drunken driving defense attorneys, we have a great deal of experience representing individuals accused of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. But is working a double shift then driving home a little fatigued the same as getting behind the wheel of an automobile after having one too many shots at a bar? Legally, these two may begin to converge.

As stated above — just like DWI, prescription drug DUI, or impaired driving as a result of using a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) such as marijuana or cocaine — the consequences for killing another person while under the influence are quite severe.

Based on New Jersey’s amended vehicular homicide statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5, if a driver causes a fatal car crash here in New Jersey and it is found that he or she drove that vehicle while “knowingly fatigued” the act is considered by the state to be an instance of recklessness. One of the quantifiers for fatigued driving is if that motorist had gone for more than 24 consecutive hours without sleep.

Violation of this law is a second-degree criminal offense carrying with it penalties of up to 10 years in jail and as much as $100,000 in fines. Just an aside, for you boaters out their, this law also applies to you as well; drowsy boating leading to a fatal watercraft accident could land a captain in the same hot water as motorists.

So, with the current laws on the books, it may not be unreasonable to expect that someday drowsy driving could become as serious and, from the standpoint of penalties, possibly as costly as being convicted for drunken driving. Now, it may be some time in the future, but some law makers and many sleep experts throughout the country have been talking about drowsy driving in the same terms as driving while intoxicated.