NEW YORK (Reuters) - Darla Drentlaw was sleeping on her daughter Katie’s bed, waiting for her to come home, when she woke to the sound of police radios. When the officers knocked on her door, she knew they had bad news.
Katie, an 18-year-old high school track star with blonde hair and a bright smile, had been driving home from a track meet that ended late at night. She fell asleep behind the wheel about 12 miles from her house in Prior Lake, Minnesota. She crashed into a dirt embankment and was killed.
“I thought it was just a bad dream, but no,” said Drentlaw, 55. “I couldn’t believe she fell asleep and we lost her.”
Drowsy driving kills more than 1,550 people a year in the United States and causes 71,000 injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which estimates there are 100,000 sleep-related crashes a year.
Although studies have found the condition to be nearly impossible to fight off without a caffeinated beverage or a nap, a surprising number of people are ignorant of the dangers.
“A lot of people roll down the window and turn on the radio when they get tired,” said Darrel Drobnich, a spokesman for the National Sleep Foundation. “That’s like saying, if I‘m hungry, if I roll down the window I won’t be hungry.”
The foundation says 60 percent of drivers have driven while drowsy in the past year, and 20 percent, or about 32 million people, admit to having actually fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Tom Callaghy, 61, started to get sleepy on a Virginia highway in 2001. He and his wife, Janie, were driving home from a competition for dogs. The last thing he remembers before dozing off is reaching over to wake his wife.
Their van drifted into a gully on the side of the road, slammed into a tree and flipped over. Callaghy suffered only cuts and bruises, and the dogs, which were in crates, were fine. But his wife of 33 years was dead.
“I have guilt that will never go away,” said Callaghy, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “In many ways I don’t want the guilt to go away because it’s a reminder to me.”
New Jersey is the only U.S. state with a drowsy-driving law. “Maggie’s Law,” is named after a 20-year-old college student, Maggie McDonnell, who was killed by a drowsy driver in 1997. The driver admitted to being awake for 30 hours after smoking crack cocaine.
His lawyer successfully argued that there was no law in the state against falling asleep at the wheel. The judge barred the jury from considering the driver’s sleep deprivation as a factor in the crash. He was fined $200.
Maggie’s mother, Carole McDonnell, worked with her state lawmakers to pass the law, which makes drivers liable for vehicular homicide if they have driven after being awake for 24 hours. The law, which passed in 2003, has a penalty of 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
So far only one person has been prosecuted under Maggie’s Law. And the number of sleep-related accidents hasn’t diminished: in 2003, there were 2,574 crashes caused by drowsy driving, according to the New Jersey Department of Transportation. In 2006, there were 3,143 such crashes.
Drobnich, of the National Sleep Foundation, attributes the bill’s lack of effectiveness to its narrow guidelines. The upside, he said, is that Maggie’s Law has increased national awareness about drowsy driving and has influenced other states, including Illinois, New York, Kentucky, Mississippi and Massachusetts, to propose similar legislation. The bills have yet to become law.
“Legislation is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one,” Drobnich said. “Unless there’s a groundswell at the state level, it takes a long time for bills to pass.”
The foundation is hoping to build such a groundswell with Drowsy Driving Prevention Week November 5-11 by highlighting the testimony of victims on a Web site (www.drowsydriving.org/).
One such story is that of Rusty Burris, 35, of Columbia, Mo.
When he was 18, Burris drove a car after 36 hours without sleep. He’d left his grandmother’s house and was about a mile from home when he fell asleep. The car drifted into an embankment and he was ejected from the sunroof. Now he’s paralyzed from the chest down.
”The last thing I remember is leaving the porch and waking up in a hospital, he said. “I was staring at the ceiling and thinking, this isn’t my grandmother’s house.”
Like many people, Burris had in the past dozed off once or twice while driving. But he always woke up before anything happened.
”It doesn’t matter how many times you get away with it,“ he said, ”it’s the one time you don‘t. And you pay for it for the rest of your life.