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Originally published: Wednesday, 8/6/2003

Punishments increase for sleepy drivers

By Regina Schaffer

WEST DEPTFORD TWP. -- Gripping the hand of Gov. James E. McGreevey, Carole McDonnell pressed her way through a crowd of cameras and entered a small tent, where the pouring rain nearly drowned out her voice.

It took her six years to get there.

"This is Maggie," McDonnell said to the gathered crowd as she held a photo of her smiling daughter. "I am her voice."

Maggie McDonnell, 20, of Washington Township, was struck and killed by a fatigued driver on July 2, 1997. She was on her way to work on the White Horse Pike in Clementon when the other driver -- who admitted to being awake for 30 consecutive hours -- crossed the dividing line and struck her car head-on.

The man was ultimately cited for reckless driving and fined $200.

On Tuesday, McGreevey signed "Maggie's Law," which will increase penalties for fatigued drivers who go more than 24 hours without sleep and cause a fatal accident. Under the new legislation, such drivers can now be charged with vehicular homicide, a second-degree offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

The new legislation, sponsored by state Senators George Geist and Stephen Sweeney, makes New Jersey the first state in the nation to target drowsy drivers. Current laws on fatigued drivers pertain only to truckers, not automobile drivers.

"Driving a car sleeping is like piloting a two-ton missile," McDonnell said. "This is a wake up call for New Jersey."

According to statistics released by AAA Mid-Atlantic, 24 hours without sleep has the same effect on driving performance as having a .10 blood alcohol level.

McGreevey cited a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that claims at least 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths each year are the result of drivers falling asleep.

"That injustice should not be subject to a simple $200 monetary fine," McGreevey said. "Carole (McDonnell) understood that in her gut, in her mind. It was just wrong."

Critics have questioned the enforceability of a law which attempts to gauge sleep, but McGreevey and Maggie's Law advocates contend that retracing a driver's steps can determine how long someone has gone without sleep.

"A driver who is asleep at the wheel is actually more dangerous than an intoxicated driver," said state Attorney General Peter Harvey, who said the legislation is a presumption in favor of recklessness, but in some cases, vehicular homicide.

"It is the role of the prosecutor to determine the fact pattern," McGreevey said, adding that a "demonstrated path of conduct" can determine how long a person has gone without sleep.

State police have long considered drowsy drivers a safety threat, said Lt. Al Della Fave, a state police spokesperson.

"Drowsy driving is no different than DWI," Della Fave said. "You look for the same stuff, driving over the line, weaving, not staying in the lane."

As McGreevey signed the bill Tuesday, McDonnell stood with three other mothers who clutched photos of their children who were also killed in drowsy driving accidents.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.