Jersey tries to put the brakes on bad driving

A first-in-the-nation law imposes criminal penalties for causing a fatal accident while dozing at the wheel.

Long-haul trucker Bill Nehrenz figures he's on the road about 310 days of the year. Every once in a while, he admits, he gets tired.

"Anytime that happens, I head right off to a safe spot to rest," says the Arrow Trucking driver as he sits on the side of a road planning his two-day, 16-hour trip to Lexington, Ky. "The old days of pushing it are over."

That's a message that the state of New Jersey hopes will spread to all the drivers on its highways, the most congested in the nation. Last week, the state became the first in the nation to allow prosecutors to charge a drowsy driver with vehicular homicide, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Going after weary drivers is just one of the ways New Jersey is trying to make its mean streets safer. The state now enlists drivers to report "aggressive drivers" by dialing #77. Six hundred calls a day are flooding in. Last month, Gov. James McGreevey signed legislation to designate some of its most dangerous highways "safe corridors," where fines for speeding and aggressive driving are doubled. And Mr. McGreevey is studying ways to cut down on other forms of driver distraction, such as using cellphones, eating food, or putting on makeup.

"We have the most densely traveled roads, some of the longest commutes, and highest insurance rates in the country," says Micah Rasmussen, a spokesman for the governor.

Part of the problem is cultural. With New Jersey's system of turnpikes, interstates, and parkways, residents always seem to have their foot pressed to the floor. "You sit in traffic so much that when you find open road, you go as fast as you can," says Dena Mottola, executive director of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. "Then, there is road rage because of the traffic."

Some of the residents, says Ms. Mottola, have picked up other bad driving habits. "Tailgating is the norm," she says.

The state is also a "corridor" state for the transshipment of goods. Every day, thousands of trucks come and go from the state's busy ports. Chemicals and other hazardous materials are routinely moved on its highways.

"The state has the ability to move goods away from its ports very quickly, which makes it very critical to New Jersey's economy," says Robert Paaswell, a professor at City College of New York and an expert on the New Jersey's transportation system. "But now we have reached a conflict: With all the congestion, will we get employees to work on time or goods to market on time?"

Roads are such an integral part of life in the Garden State that politicians have been known to get voted out over something as mundane as car insurance. "Many have made promises to lower rates, but few have tackled the long-term problems," says Mr. Rasmussen.

These days, the state is trying to do something. In addition to the new legislation and the #77 feature, the state driver's manual now includes a section on how to drive with tractor-trailers. And New Jersey is sending instructors to high schools to teach students how to drive near trucks.

The state says it is also the first in the nation to have "safety impact" teams of engineers, police, and federal highway experts who examine the signage, signals, and surface condition of certain roads. One of the teams' first recommendations was to improve a dangerous stretch of road between Lawrenceville and Plainsboro. The 10-mile section now has some $3 million worth of crosswalks, enhanced striping, and updated signs.

Some efforts are more grass-roots driven. That's the case with the anti-drowsy law, known in the state as Maggie's Law. The Maggie in this case was Maggie McDonnell, a college student who died in 1997 after a car swerved across three lanes. The driver of the car said he had not slept for 30 hours. His lawyer convinced the court that driving while exhausted was not a crime, and the driver received a $200 fine.

Maggie's mother began a campaign to make such driving a serious crime when a fatality takes place. "She lobbied and cajoled to make sure whatever loophole was in the law would be closed," says Marcia Stein of the Sleep Foundation in Washington.

Other states may be following New Jersey's lead. There is a proposed anti-drowsy-driving bill in New York. And Rep. Robert Andrews (D) of New Jersey has introduced a federal version of Maggie's Law. It would provide funding for education, police training, and the installation of rumble strips - raised sections of pavement to help keep drivers awake.

Such laws may help highlight a major problem, says Darrel Drobnich, a policy expert at the Sleep Foundation. The foundation's surveys have found that 50 percent of those polled admit to having driven drowsy, while 17 percent say they have fallen asleep at the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 100,000 crashes and 1,550 fatalities are associated with drowsy driving. "Drunk-driving laws were on the books since the 1880s, but it wasn't until MADD raised the issue that it became a stigma," he says.

That would be fine with some of the professional drivers, such as truckers like Mr. Nehrenz. He'd like to see more "no frills" rest stops, for example.

"That way when we get tired, we can pull over and not get harassed for idling," he says as he starts his trip to Kentucky.

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