By Tamara Herdener, faculty member, Legal Studies at American Public University
Early this summer, the headlines were filled with the tragic news of an accident involving comedian and TV star Tracy Morgan. His limo was struck by a semi-truck whose driver allegedly had not slept for almost 24 hours. This was a news-worthy event heard across the nation because it involved comedian celebrity, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that approximately 1,550 fatalities per year are caused by drowsy driving. If you should get in an accident, here’s a guide of different laws by state.
What can we learn from this incident to help increase safety? The obvious take-away is that it is unsafe to drive while drowsy. Experts such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), find that driving while sleepy is just as dangerous as driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is not just commercial drivers who drive without adequate rest; drowsy driving occurs every day by average, ordinary citizens.
Do We Need Driving While Drowsy (DWD) Laws?
Should we have laws similar to Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) that mandate no Driving While Drowsy (DWD)? Possibly such laws would be redundant as current laws mandate against negligent driving and, certainly, driving without adequate rest is negligent. However, in the eyes of the law, a drowsy driver is generally not considered a negligent driver. Legislation that specifically targets motor vehicle operation while tired is needed to successfully prosecute those who drive without adequate rest and endanger the lives of others.
Recent legislative efforts on the state level have been made to combat drowsy driving. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports that as of July 2014, seven states have enacted drowsy driving laws and many other state legislatures submitted similar bills that did not survive to become law. A silver lining of the accident involving Tracy Morgan and the unfortunate death of his travel companion James McNair, is that such legislation may now have a better chance of prevailing.
The tragic incident provoked much needed attention, conversation, and hopefully legislation to deter drowsy driving. Another positive outcome of this accident is the attention now given to the topic of legal responsibility and culpability for commercial drivers that do not adhere to the federal hours-of-service requirements. Whose responsibility is it to ensure commercial drivers are following these requirements and getting adequate rest? Of course, it seems only logical that it is the driver’s responsibility, but attention is also being given to the responsibility of employers and how industry policies impact this issue.
About the Author: Tamara Herdener has taught in the Legal Studies Program at American Public University since 2003. She served for eight years in the US Army Reserves in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAGC). Prior to serving on active duty, she attended Seattle University earning her undergraduate degree in Political Science and Foreign Languages. Upon graduating from Seattle University, she attended the University of Notre Dame Law School. In addition to teaching for APUS, she practices law in a part-time capacity as the City Attorney in Cannon Beach, Oregon.
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