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US professor calls for legislation to prosecute fatigued drivers

A prominent US sleep professor has called for explicit legislation to consistently recognise accidents caused by drowsy drivers as cases of gross negligence.

Writing in the Washington Post, Professor Charles A Czeisler, Director of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has highlighted the inconsistent manner with which current laws have been applied to fatigued-driver accidents in some US states.

Professor Czeisler cited a recent incident in the state of Maryland in which a sleeping driver who veered into oncoming traffic caused the death of a truck driver when his vehicle ploughed off a bridge as he tried to avoid collision.

The accident took place on a Sunday at 4 am, a time known to be a biolgical low point in alertness. Despite admitting that she had fallen asleep at the wheel and had not obtained sufficient rest before commencing her journey, the nineteen year old driver was not subject to criminal charges. According to Professor Czeisler, the State of Maryland “erred egregiously in declaring that drowsy drivers who cause fatal crashes are not grossly negligent.”

Moreover, the State’s conclusion is at odds with a 2005 case which saw the same state convict a fatigued driver of gross negligent manslaughter, with the court recognising the “deliberate failure of a driver to heed clear warning signs of drowsiness” as a demonstration of “a reckless disregard for human life”.

According to Professor Czeisler, the solution to this inconsistent application of current laws is the provision of clear guidance via the introduction of explicit statutes for such cases.

While many US states recognise driving whilst fatigued as an offence, the only state with a statutory provision in place for recognising causing death through driving whilst knowingly fatigued as reckless homicide is New Jersey.

This is contrasted with statutory provisions against drink-driving, which are firmly established in all US states, despite the depth of data demonstrating fatigue as impairing drivers to levels comparable to those above legal blood alcohol limits.

Professor Czeisler holds that with approximately 8000 people killed in the US every year in fatigue-driving incidents, delivering consistent means for punishing fatigued drivers will afford a real opportunity to reduce these numbers.

source: Washington Post