On June 26, 2002, a car crossed the median on Route 111 in Pepperell and slammed head-on into the motorcycle of US Army Reserve major Robert Raneri, who was on his way to work.
Raneri was killed. His girlfriend buried him in the crisp, new Army uniform he had purchased for their wedding, meant to be held that week. Two weeks later, she discovered that she was pregnant with their child.
The driver responsible for the crash was a 19-year-old who had fallen asleep at the wheel. He admitted to police that he had been awake for over 24 hours, playing video games with friends.
In response to that high-profile tragedy, Massachusetts amended the state licensing program to set stricter penalties for nighttime driving and increase driver education on fatigue for the youngest drivers, junior operators ages 16½ to 17.
Young people are especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation: They fall asleep more easily than adults and are less likely to pull over and nap, says Charles Czeisler, chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
But did the new driving rules make a difference? The answer is yes, according to a study by Czeisler and colleagues published in the June issue of Health Affairs.
Prior to 2007, junior drivers who violated a restriction on unsupervised nighttime driving (midnight to 5 a.m.) received a maximum fine of $35 for a first offense and $75-100 for subsequent offenses. Under the new law, violators now face 60-day, 180-day, and one-year license suspensions, with mandatory driver’s education for repeat offenders.
Combing through Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicle crash reports from the years before and after the rules changed, Czeisler’s group found that the stiffened penalties reduced crash rates for junior drivers by 18.6 percent and for 18- and 19-year-old drivers by 6.7 percent. Overall, the new provisions reduced crashes that caused a fatal or incapacitating injury involving a younger driver by almost 40 percent.
“Over the past eight years, 320 fatal and incapacitating injuries and 13,000 crashes have been prevented by this law,” says Czeisler, who helped draft the legislation.
But there are still improvements to be made, he emphasizes. There are currently no restrictions on nighttime driving for 18- to 19-year-olds, who had the highest night crash rates of all ages in the study.
A targeted education campaign on drowsy driving could help reduce the thousands of deaths and injuries that happen each year due to driver fatigue, especially for young drivers, says Czeisler. “It is so sad to see people cut down at the beginning of their lives because they’re so susceptible to sleep loss.”