How many times have you been driving late at night and seen the car ahead of you or behind you begin to drift out of it’s lane and then jerk back over? You think to yourself: is that driver drunk? Or is he falling asleep? Maybe both? Then you think about how to get away from that driver and try to keep yourself and your family safe. Maybe you accelerate past him… maybe you stay back a safe distance… maybe you call the police. You just want to avoid being involved in an auto accident.
In a recent national survey, nearly one-third of all drivers admitted they had either fallen asleep at the wheel or almost fallen asleep in the past few months. An estimated 1.9 million car accidents a year are caused that way. And while drunken or texting drivers get more attention, a whopping one in six fatalities on the roads are caused by drivers who have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Drowsy driving has been listed as a high-priority concern by the National Transportation Safety Board for more than twenty years now. And the board is calling on regulators and employers to develop guidelines and fatigue management programs.
Virginia law on drowsy driving is very simple and quite clear. Of course, all drivers on the road owe a duty to each other to operate their vehicles in safe and prudent manner. But that is a subjective standard. The model jury instruction about drowsy driving is that if a driver falls asleep at the wheel he is negligent. Virginia lawyers use jury instructions as a set of “rules” for the jury to follow when they are reaching their verdict. The difficulty at trial, however, can be proving that you were involved in a crash with a sleeping driver.
One of the chief contributors to drowsy driving is drivers who have been on the road for too long. Virginia courts have a way of dealing with those drivers also. Drivers who have been at the wheel for more than thirteen hours of any twenty-four hour period are negligent. Again, you can have trouble proving how long a driver has been at the wheel at trial without his own admission. However, the people most likely to commit this sort of negligence are truck drivers – who are required to maintain log books detailing when they come and go from each stop.