A true wake-up call

Six years ago, 20-year-old Margaret McDonnell was killed by a vehicle driven by a man who had been awake for 30 consecutive hours. The driver was charged with vehicular homicide but was acquitted on the grounds that the statute did not apply when fatigue was the cause. Instead, the driver received a $200 ticket for careless driving.

In late June, the New Jersey legislature passed Maggie’s Law, which allows for the criminal prosecution of a driver who causes a fatal accident after having been awake for 24 consecutive hours or more. Such drivers could be subject to charges of vehicular homicide, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

It’s hard to argue with the sense of justice behind Maggie’s Law, and chances are the impact won’t be huge. Convictions may be rare because it won’t be easy to prove that a driver hadn’t slept in a day. But it isn’t hard to predict the likely consequences if the idea catches on nationwide.

Although Maggie’s Law does not target them, you can bet that truck drivers will be among those prosecuted most frequently. Fatal accidents involving large trucks can be dramatic, often attracting local television coverage that prosecutors can replay for juries.

Moreover, establishing lack of sleep could be easier in the case of a truck driver than with an automobile driver. Logbooks, receipts and depositions of truck stop employees could be enough to make a case. Throw in satellite-tracking data and falsified logbooks, and now you are talking conviction.

But other potential consequences are even scarier. Legislatures and courts might very well extend the concept to the owners, managers or dispatchers of the trucking operation that employed the drowsy driver. If a driver killed someone because a dispatcher or owner directed him to drive without sleep, then shouldn’t that manager also be criminally liable?

Trucking companies already face civil liability for the actions of their drivers. But criminal prosecution is a very different matter. Which frightens you more – a potential $2 million judgment against your company or the prospect of 10 years in the big house? And criminal liability is uninsurable. There is no premium you can pay to have someone else serve your jail time.

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Civil litigation and criminal prosecution may be more effective than regulation in changing companies’ behavior, but there is little indication that regulators are loosening their grip. True, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ultimately opted not to require electronic onboard recorders, but it stands by its practice of using satellite-tracking data if auditors can’t otherwise verify the accuracy of logs. In fact, FMCSA reaffirmed that policy in a decision it issued June 22 denying Prime Inc.’s petition to upgrade its safety rating. An expected rulemaking on supporting documents that carriers must retain could formalize this policy into regulation.

It’s clear that the perception in all branches and levels of government is that fatigued truck drivers represent a serious highway safety problem. What should the industry do? Aside from fixing the problem where it exists, perhaps the trucking industry should endorse the proposed national Maggie’s Law (H.R. 968), also known as the National Drowsy Driving Act of 2003.

Sponsored by Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), the legislation would authorize grants to state and local governments to distribute educational materials about drowsy driving and take other actions. It also would mandate a Department of Transportation study on the scope of the problem of fatigue-related automobile crashes.

Why not acknowledge driver fatigue as a serious concern and suggest that unregulated, unmonitored automobile drivers may be the real problem? Fight perception with perception.