Just read an article in the New York Times titled, “Push to Prosecute Drowsy Driving May Hinge on Its Definition“. Before I discuss this article, I need to make a confession: I’ve done it. I have driven drowsy. I’ve felt myself nodding off at the wheel. It has happened a few times in my life, and every time it scared the crap out of me. Come on, admit it — it’s happened to you, too!
Now I (and you?) could go to jail for it. According to the article, law enforcement officials are pushing State legislators to make driving-while-drowsy a crime punishable by jail time. This follows a decades-long trend toward criminalizing dangerous driving behaviors, such as drinking-while-driving, texting-while-driving and phoning-while-driving.
Until now, law enforcement has simply coaxed the sleepy driver with friendly nudges from roadside signs, such as “You Snooze, You Lose” or “Drive Alert, Arrive Alive.” Is it a good idea to up the ante, to make it a crime?
Since my job includes suing negligent drivers for causing car crashes that injure my clients, I would love a law like that. To prove my case, I would just hand the judge proof of the criminal conviction, and he or she would instruct the jury that the defendant driver is liable as a matter of law. Case closed. Only thing left for the jury would be to figure out how much money my client is owed.
Even though I personally would benefit from the criminalization of drowsy driving, I’m against it. (You see! We personal injury lawyers are not all about greed!). It’s just wrong. Nowadays we believe jail is the answer to every problem. But jail is expensive for us taxpayers. Some otherwise very good people might get drowsy at the wheel. Driving without enough sleep is in part a consequence of our modern high-stress world, where we are all juggling busy schedules, long work hours, sometimes more than one job, not to mention taxi-ing our kids around to and from sports practices. And how do you prove someone was legally “too sleepy” to be driving anyway? There’s no blood test (like for alcohol) and no record (like cellphone call records) to prove sleeping, or lack of it.
Don’t get me wrong — I am all for holding folks accountable for their negligence in a civil trial for damages. But if you can prove someone fell asleep at the wheel, that’s already just about always a slam dunk on civil liability in New York State. (See my past blog post “Does Falling Asleep at Wheel Automatically Make Sleeping Driver Liable For Central New York Motor Vehicle Accident?“). I just don’t want a separate criminal penalty for it. I don’t think the threat of jail will keep sleepy people off the road.
The one exception I would make would be for commercial drivers and common public carriers, such as taxi drivers, bus drivers. But you still have the problem of defining what legally is “too sleepy”, and proving it. Lots of grey areas in there.
Email me at: email@example.com I’d love to hear from you!
Michael G. Bersani, Esq.
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