New N.J. law a wake-up call for drowsy drivers



Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/06/03
Motorists who fall asleep have 100,000 accidents, kill 1,500 in U.S. each year
By STEVE LEVINE
GANNETT NEW JERSEY

WEST DEPTFORD -- Maggie McDonnell's loved ones hope she can finally rest easy now that Gov. McGreevey -- inspired by her story -- has made New Jersey the first state to recognize fatigued driving as a crime if it leads to a fatal accident.

McGreevey yesterday signed "Maggie's Law," which lets a judge impose 10-year prison sentences and $150,000 fines against drivers who are awake for at least 24 straight hours before a fatal accident.

McDonnell, a college student from Washington Township, Gloucester County, was killed in Clementon while driving to work on July 2, 1997. The other driver -- Michael Coleman of Chesilhurst -- had been awake for more than 30 hours, authorities said.

Coleman could not be prosecuted for fatigued driving, his lawyer argued, because there was no such law in the state. Coleman was convicted of reckless driving and was fined $200.

McDonnell's mother, Carole, then petitioned legislators to close what she considered a terrible legal loophole.

"Maggie's Law will protect other families from enduring the same indignity," she said yesterday.

McGreevey signed the law outside state Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney's West Deptford office. The governor praised Carole McDonnell for her persistence.

McDonnell was 20 in 1997 when she was killed in a crash caused by a drowsy driver in Clementon.
"(The day Maggie died) was not just a sad day for Carole and her family but a sad day for New Jersey and America," McGreevey said. "We are all indebted to Maggie and her mother."

State Sen. George Geist, R-Camden, co-sponsored the bill in the Senate. Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Douglas Fisher, both D-Gloucester, also supported the measure.

For a conviction to occur under Maggie's Law, a driver must admit to being awake for at least 24 hours before the accident, or police must be able to prove the driver was awake for that long.

Attorney General Peter Harvey, who attended the signing, said the law was long overdue.

"A driver who is asleep at the wheel is more dangerous than a person who is intoxicated," Harvey said.

The law does not specifically target average drivers who tire from long hours at work or boredom behind the wheel, Harvey said. But it will let prosecutors charge drivers in cases where extreme sleeplessness played a key factor in a fatal accident, he said.

Those who use the state's roads the most -- truck drivers -- already must meet strict rest requirements under federal guidelines.

Still, those interviewed at the Travel Centers of America rest stop off Interstate 295 in Paulsboro said they support the additional legislation.

"It's a good deal," said Joe Lewis, 49, of Crown Point, Ind. "You're supposed to be rested out there."