published: Tuesday, 8/5/2003
Carole McDonnell never expected the attention she has received lately. She would have preferred not to have it.
After her daughter, Margaret "Maggie" McDonnell, was killed by a fatigued driver six years ago, the Washington Township resident made a choice. She chose to fight back.
"Another family is never going to have to go through this. This was a grave injustice," she said Monday in a brief telephone interview.
"If you are awake for 24 hours and you kill someone on the road, there is going to be a hefty price to pay."
Gov. James E. McGreevey is scheduled to sign "Maggie's Law" today, a law cracking down on fatigued drivers. Passage of the bill followed an intense lobbying effort by McDonnell and several lawmakers.
Her efforts to criminalize fatigued driving have put Carole McDonnell's face in the national media and set off a debate well beyond New Jersey's borders.
Margaret "Maggie" McDonnell, 20, was killed six years ago when a driver functioning on 30 consecutive hours without sleep crossed the dividing line along a Camden County road and hit Maggie's car.
Driver Michael E. Coleman walked away from the July 2, 1997, crash with a $200 fine.
Under present laws, investigators are often powerless to press charges against fatigued drivers involved in auto accidents. Prosecutors generally lodge careless driving charges, carrying a penalty of no more than $200 and two insurance liability points.
The new law permits prosecutors to lodge vehicular homicide charges against anyone responsible for a fatal crash following a period of 30 hours or more without sleep. The second-degree crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Sens. George Geist, R-Gloucester, and Stephen Sweeney, D-West Deptford, ushered the increased penalties through the Legislature.
Under the measure, exact penalties would be determined by the severity of the accident.
According to the AAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, 24 hours without sleep has an effect similar to a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent, the legal limit for drunk driving in New Jersey.
Currently, New Jersey laws on driving while fatigued pertain only to truckers, not automobile drivers.
"When you consider that it can be just as serious as driving while intoxicated, it was a serious loophole," said Micah Rasmussen, spokesman for McGreevey. "We should be getting serious on all forms of driver distraction."