Originally published: Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Push education for 'Maggie's Law'

First, let's clear up a misconception that has prompted some unfair sniping at "Maggie's Law," the "driving-while-tired" law awaiting Gov. James McGreevey's signature.

This bill would not have cops pull you over, determine that you are "tired" by some legal standard, and charge you with driving while in that condition.

("What are they gonna do? Have an officer in your bedroom to monitor how long you slept last night?")

"Maggie's Law" is not comparable to driving-while-intoxicated laws that way. In fact, it aims only to permit sleep depravation as a cause for a vehicular homicide charge -- when a fatigued motorist kills someone else.

Sponsored originally by state Sen. George F. Geist, when Geist, R-4, was in the Assembly, it responds to the case of Maggie McDonnell, a Gloucester County College student killed on the White Horse Pike in 1997. The driver, Michael Coleman, was convicted only on the minor charge of careless driving -- even though he had admitted operating his vehicle without having slept for 30 hours. He paid a $200 fine.

Geist's bill garnered national publicity and bi-partisan co-sponsors, including local Democrats Robert Smith and John Burzichelli in the Assembly and Stephen Sweeney in the Senate. Their concern for addressing a disgusting situation in which justice was not served is laudable. It is a good idea to have this law on the books. That said, we have to concede a point to the critics: It could be near impossible to obtain convictions.

Some defense attorneys have built mansions from successful challenges of Breathalyzer and blood tests as faulty. Knowing that, the absence of any scientific standard by which "fatigue" can be measured at an accident scene may well provide the same lawyers with vacation homes.

There may be some limited-value eyewitness testimony, but circumstances like Coleman's -- he admitted to authorities how sleepy he was -- are rare.

The best reason to sign this bill is the awareness it will raise about the problem. The AAA-Mid-Atlantic Region says 24 hours without sleep causes a driver to react the same way as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent, the legal standard in New Jersey.

The pity is that "Maggie's Law" does not come with money for a publicity and education campaign. That should be the next step. Driving while fatigued is not just an issue for professional truck drivers.

Campaigns to remind motorists to use seat belts and against driving drunk have probably done more to reduce such behavior than every punitive law. This looks to be the case with "Maggie's Law," as well.