By Jordan W. Charness
It’s happened to me, and I’ll wager that it has happened to you more than once. You are infected with the disease that pilots call, “Get-home-itis”. It’s the uncontrollable urge to get home despite the weather and the way that you feel. Private pilots are warned not to succumb to these feelings and to make sure that they are in proper mental and physical condition and that the weather is cooperating before getting into their airplanes and flying home.
I can honestly say that although I am a private pilot I’ve been very careful never to push the envelope when it comes to climbing into my airplane and taking off. Both the weather and the pilot have to be capable of making a safe flight.
It appears that getting behind the wheel of a car does not invoke the same precautionary feelings as climbing into a cockpit does. Perhaps it’s because I’m more familiar with driving and the fact that I drive much more often than I fly. There has been the occasion where I made the decision to drive so that I could get to my destination even though I may have been tired or sick or both and did not have my full wits about me. Fortunately this has not been the cause of an accident.
Back to my wager: I’m sure that you’ve driven and found yourself nodding off at the wheel on more than one occasion. You may have found yourself waking up with a start and a rapidly beating heart as you realized that, just for a nanosecond, you fell asleep at the wheel.
In Canada, driving while drunk or incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol is illegal. This includes prescription drugs and even over-the-counter drugs that could make you drowsy. But for the time being, driving when you’re really tired is not a specific offence.
At least it’s not an offence here. In New Jersey, it’s a completely different story. In 2003 “Maggie’s law” was signed into law. It was named after a young lady by the name of Maggie McDonnell who was only 20 years old when she was killed by a driver who had fallen asleep behind the wheel. That driver had not taken any types of drugs or even a drop of alcohol. He had however been awake for over 30 hours when he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car.
At the time his lawyers argued that there was no specific offence called drowsy driving and that falling asleep behind the wheel was not a crime. He had no intention of killing anybody or even causing an accident when he got into his car that night. He had been awake for 30 hours because of a requirement of his job. After two trials he was acquitted of manslaughter and was fined $200 for dangerous driving.
Maggie’s mother launched a campaign to get her state to enact a law that would specifically create a criminal offence of drowsy driving. A law came into effect in 2003 making it illegal to operate a motor vehicle after having been awake for 24 hours or more.
While we don’t have anything quite as specific here, it does hammer home the fact that driving when drowsy can be just as dangerous as driving when drunk. There have been studies that have shown that when you try to drive after being awake for more than 24 hours, your impairment is similar to someone with a .10 blood alcohol level. This is 25% higher than the .08 minimum that defines our drinking and driving laws.
Perhaps common sense will prevail and it will not require another law for us to realize the driving when drowsy can be dangerous not only to ourselves but to everyone else on the road.