When Arkansas became one of only two states in America to criminalize drowsy driving, it was partly thanks to the efforts of one man: state Sen. Jason Rapert (R).
More than three years ago, Rapert was frustrated by the incidence of traffic fatalities in which no one could be prosecuted because the state’s laws only penalized infractions like drunk driving. So he proposed SB 874, which classifies “fatigued driving” under the category of negligent homicide if the driver involved in a fatal accident has not slept for 24 consecutive hours.
The measure passed easily in the Arkansas House and Senate and became a law in April 2013.
The Huffington Post caught up with Rapert to learn how he got the law on the books.
What prompted your interest in drowsy driving?
I had a constituent who lost her mother due to the fact a driver had allegedly been bragging on social media about staying up over 24 hours without sleep and got into a car, fell asleep and hit her mother in a head-on collision, killing her mother.
Has this legislation been received well by your constituents? What feedback have you received?
We received positive feedback when the news was covering the story and the progression of the bill. Drowsy driving is a problem around the nation, and the stories are very sad when they involve actions that obviously include gross negligence.
Is fatigued driving a bipartisan issue? Why or why not?
The bill we passed in Arkansas did have bipartisan support. It is a public safety issue that deals with life and death.
Arkansas is only the second U.S. state (after New Jersey) to penalize drowsy driving. Why do you think other states have been slow to act?
Addressing the issue by statute is a long process, and this issue is very technical in nature. Often, it seems that it takes a high-profile story involving drowsy driving that prompts citizens to take notice and contact legislators to address the issue properly.
When the constituent in my district contacted me after being told that Arkansas law simply failed to address the issue specifically, I agreed to sit down and listen. Her story was compelling, and she also informed me of “Maggie’s Law,” which was passed in New Jersey. It goes against all sense of fairness that anyone could purposely get behind the wheel in an impaired state and have an accident that often takes the life of another person and they have no consequences.
So what exactly did you do after the constituent reached out to you to translate the issue into legislation?
I took time to research the issue and consult many others on the most appropriate action we could take to address the problem. I found that research shows that a drowsy driver is often even more dangerous than an intoxicated driver, because the drowsy driver doesn’t typically slow down during an accident, whereas an impaired driver under the influence will often slow down. It is fascinating research and very compelling.
We decided to simply amend the negligent homicide statute in our state and agreed it was the most effective way to address this issue. I received support from law enforcement and prosecutors to pass my bill, and I am happy that we at least gave prosecutors a statute that addresses situations where gross negligence is obviously present in an accident that takes someone else’s life.
“It goes against all sense of fairness that anyone could purposely get behind the wheel in an impaired state and have an accident that often takes the life of another person and they have no consequences.”
What would it take to get more states to act on this issue?
News coverage and legislative attention.
Do you think the federal government should move to legislate drowsy driving?
Most statutes dealing with this issue are obviously state statutes. I believe individual states are best positioned to address issues in their state to be sure statutes are incorporated properly without any unintended consequences.
What is the biggest misconception about fatigued driving?
That it is not a problem. Statistics actually show that it is a serious problem and is the cause of deaths on highways all over our nation on a yearly basis. Unfortunately, most people do not think about it until they lose a family member or loved one who was killed in a drowsy driving or fatigued driving incident.
Have you personally fallen asleep or even felt a bit sleepy at the wheel?
I believe everyone who drives on a regular basis has had the experience of becoming fatigued at some point in their lives. The key is in recognizing if you are fatigued and taking appropriate action to pull over and get off the road before you have an accident that could potentially endanger the lives of other people or yourself. There are many great resources to educate drivers on how to properly address situations when they become fatigued.
What is your response to people who say we shouldn't criminalize this issue because it's hard to prove someone is sleep-deprived?
I know of no one who wants to create a law that holds someone criminally responsible unless there is gross negligence. Regarding our statute to address drowsy driving -- purposely staying awake over 24 hours and getting behind the wheel of a vehicle has been determined to cross the threshold of negligence in our state. Prosecutors ultimately have to make decisions on every case that comes before them. At least in Arkansas, they now have language that allows them to properly address cases that involve drowsy driving accidents that result in someone losing their life.
This interview has been edited for clarity.