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New Jersey on Aug. 5 became the first state to criminalize drowsy driving that leads to fatal accidents. Gov. James McGreevey signed S-1644, also known as “Maggie’s Law,” which amends the vehicular homicide statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5, to provide that “driving a vehicle or vessel while knowingly fatigued shall constitute ‘recklessness.’” Drivers are “fatigued” if they have gone for more than 24 consecutive hours without sleep. Violation of the law, which applies to operators of boats as well as car drivers, is a second-degree crime and penalties can range as high as 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. The law is named after Maggie McDonnell, a 20-year-old college student from Gloucester County who died in July 1997 when a car driven by Michael Coleman swerved across three lanes and struck her vehicle head on. Coleman, who admitted he fell asleep at the wheel after 30 hours without sleep, was acquitted of vehicular homicide and fined $200 for reckless driving. Maggie’s Law would make it easier to convict someone like Coleman for the death. First introduced in February 2001 as A-3223, the bill passed the Assembly four months later but stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was reintroduced as S-1644 in June 2002 and passed both houses this past June 23. Under the law, proof that a driver dozed off behind the wheel or was driving after not sleeping for more than 24 hours “may give rise to an inference” of reckless driving. As originally drafted, that provision was tougher, reading “shall” instead of “may.” Another change from the original draft was the Senate’s dropping of an exception for driving “justified by salutary public purpose,” which would have protected fire and police personnel. Washington and New York are considering similar measures. A federal bill, Maggie’s Law: National Drowsy Driving Act of 2003, H.R. 968, introduced by Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., on Feb. 27, would not criminalize such crashes but would provide incentives for states to develop traffic safety programs to reduce fatigue-related collisions. According to AAA Mid-Atlantic Inc., the effect on driving of 24 hours without sleep is like a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent, the New Jersey threshold for DWI. A 1995 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that dozing drivers cause at least 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths each year in the United States.

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