Drowsy Drivers Just As Bad As Drunks, Massachusetts Panel Contends

March 10, 2009

A Massachusetts legislative commission is pushing for measures to combat drowsy driving, contending that a fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one who’s had too many beers.

“I think we’re where drunk driving was 25 years ago,” said Sen. Richard Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat who chairs the Special Commission on Drowsy Driving.

The commission issued a report that said long hours for medical residents, truckers and night-shift workers contribute to preventable accidents where drivers fall asleep.

The panel said it favors legislation that would make vehicular homicide stemming from drowsy driving a more serious offense, includes the topic in driver’s education classes, and expands highway safety measures — such as reducing the amount of time vehicles can be left in the breakdown lane to four hours instead of three days, which would leave open rumble strips that can wake up drivers swerving to the side of the road.

The commission also endorses limiting the number of hours medical residents must work. If residents feel too tired to drive, the commission recommended that hospitals give them vouchers for taxis or public transportation.

Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, says 250,000 people fall asleep behind the wheel every day nationally, leading to 100,000 police-reported crashes a year. He equated staying awake for 24 hours straight with a blood alcohol content of 0.1 percent.

“Many people don’t realize how serious getting behind the wheel when they’re drowsy is,” Czeisler said. “There’s no real substitute for sleep if you’re getting behind the wheel of a car.”

Because there is no method to determine if someone is too fatigued to drive, commission members said law enforcement agencies should examine whether drowsy driving played a role in fatal accidents.

The commission convened under Moore’s urging as part of the Junior Operator’s Law in 2006. Moore had also filed a drowsy driving prevention bill in 2004 known as “Rob’s Law.” The bill was named for Maj. Robert Raneri, who was killed in a 2002 crash with a 19-year-old who admitted to being awake for 24 hours playing video games before the accident.

Marian Berkowitz, a former Department of Public Health employee, spoke of how her brother — overworked as a second-year law student– died in 1984 driving alone to Wake Forest from interviews in Washington, D.C.

Berkowitz said local police told her family that her brother swerved into oncoming traffic and was hit by a bus. He apparently fell asleep behind the wheel.

“My parents’ focus has been memorializing him through the school, but never really addressed the cause,” Berkowitz said. “It’s time for that.”

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