Sunday, January 4, 2009
Nineteen-year-old Candy Lynn Baldwin admitted to The Post and to Maryland police last Aug. 10 that she fell asleep at the wheel on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge about 4 a.m., drifting into oncoming traffic and sending truck driver John R. Short Sr., 57, careening off the bridge to his death. Baldwin told The Post she was exhausted at the time of the Sunday morning crash, attempting to drive near the daily peak of sleep tendency after reportedly getting only some sleep late on Friday night during her mother's wedding weekend.
Last month, Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank M. Kratovil Jr. said his office found that Baldwin was not "grossly negligent" in the crash and that no criminal charges would be filed. The state erred egregiously in declaring that drowsy drivers who cause fatal crashes are not grossly negligent.
Sleep loss degrades eye-to-hand reflexes comparably to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent, the equivalent of being legally drunk. The National Transportation Safety Board has long recognized that fatigue is the most common cause of truck crashes that kill the driver, equaling drug- and alcohol-related crashes combined.
Drowsy drivers have been successfully convicted of vehicular homicide or manslaughter under negligence statutes in Maryland, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as in Australia, Britain, Japan and New Zealand. In 2005, a Maryland appeals court affirmed a drowsy driver's gross negligence manslaughter conviction, concluding that "the deliberate failure of a driver to heed clear warning signs of drowsiness is evidence of a reckless disregard for human life." Yet state prosecutors will not charge Baldwin. Such inconsistent application of justice is due to the absence of explicit legislation in Maryland to deal with drowsy driving. Explicit statutes are needed, because they provide clearer guidelines for prosecutors and courts than negligence statutes and more effectively educate the public about the hazards of drowsy driving.
Three years ago, the Sleep Research Society and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which together represent more than 5,000 scientists and clinicians in sleep science and sleep-disorders medicine, together with the National Sleep Foundation here in Washington, endorsed model legislation to combat drowsy driving. The legislation would add falling asleep, being impaired by drowsiness or being sleep-deprived while operating a motor vehicle to a list of criminal offenses that constitute reckless driving, just like driving under the influence of alcohol. The legislation also mandates education for drivers and law enforcement personnel about drowsy driving. Such statutes can play a key role in reducing the risk of preventable tragedies such as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge crash that cost John Short his life.
Education about the hazards of drunken driving works because it is backed by punitive sanctions in all 50 states. Yet New Jersey is the only state that has established that driving a vehicle while knowingly fatigued constitutes recklessness under its vehicular homicide statute. Maryland should enact similar legislation to promote education about the hazards of drowsy driving and to equate drowsy driving with reckless driving. Candy Lynn Baldwin knew she was exhausted when she joined an estimated 250,000 Americans -- mostly young drivers -- who fell asleep while driving during that same day. John Short joined the 8,000 Americans who are killed annually in drowsy-driving crashes, which contribute to about one out of every five serious crash injuries. It should be a crime for drivers to get behind the wheel of a car when drowsy and kill innocent victims. Maybe then it wouldn't happen so often.
-- Charles A. Czeisler
The writer, a professor and director of sleep medicine divisions at Harvard Medical School and Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, serves on the Massachusetts Special Commission on Drowsy Driving.