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Announcement

Junior Operators Drivers Licensing Law for Massachusetts

January 5, 2007



In his final hours in office, Governor Mitt Romney signed into law Massachusetts’ new Junior Operators Drivers Licensing Law (JOL).  This is a significant step in addressing the major public policy issue of drowsy driving in America.  Among the least publicized but most noteworthy aspects of this law is that it introduces legislation on drowsy driving for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth; calls for expanding drivers education programs to include information on the effects of sleep deprivation on driving performance; it will also include provisions that bar teen-agers from driving between the hours of 12:00 am and 5:00 am – the time of day when they can be most susceptible to falling asleep at the wheel; and it establishes a Commission to study the impact of drowsy driving on drivers of all ages as described below.

The language on drowsy driving incorporated into the Junior Operator’s Drivers Licensing Law was adopted from a prior bill introduced be Senator Richard T. Moore, “Rob’s Law”, who became concerned with the issue of drowsy driving following the tragic death of Major Rob Raneri, a native of Holliston, MA, who was killed on his way to Fort Devens by a teenage driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel after staying up all night playing video games.  Following Major Raneri’s tragic death, Senator Moore asked the Division of Sleep Medicine for advice as he sought to draft drowsy driving recommendations for Massachusetts.  After developing initial recommendations, Dr. Charles Czeisler, Director of the Division of Sleep Medicine and Dr. Christopher Landrigan sought input from a taskforce of experts in the scientific sleep community, and  model legislation was developed and formally endorsed by the boards of the Sleep Research Society, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation, representing over 1100 sleep scientists and sleep medicine specialists nationwide.  Working with Senators Moore and Baddour, as well as representatives of the Massachusetts State Police, these recommendations made their way into the Senate version of the Junior Operators’ Bill.

With the support of Representative Bradford Hill of Essex County, who led the JOL legislature initiative in the House, and following the deliberations of the joint Senate-House Conference Committee, the Bill was ultimately passed with the drowsy driving measures included, and signed into law by Governor Romney. .  Rep. Hill became involve with sponsorship of the Junior Operator’s Licensing Law when he was asked by the Chairman of the Massachusetts House Committee on Public Safety to chair a subcommittee to review teen driving.  After turning on the news and picking up the paper too many times and reading about unthinkable tragedies involving teen drivers. Rep. Hill and the Committee knew that the laws on the books were not enough to keep teens safe.  They crafted the Junior Operator’s License Bill to strengthen parent involvement, actual driving experience and roadway education.

The special state commission established by this law will study the impact of drowsy driving on highway safety and the effects of sleep deprivation on drivers while operating on the highways.  The scope of the drowsy driving problem is staggering. 80,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel every day in the U.S., endangering themselves, their families, and their fellow citizens. In Massachusetts alone, 375,000 licensed drivers have nodded off or fallen asleep while driving in the past six months. 20 percent of all serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes are caused by drowsy driving. That means that every day in Massachusetts, three people have fatal or incapacitating injuries due to a drowsy driving crash.

Two out of three of these drowsy driving injuries are caused by young drivers. In fact, fatal motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 15-20 year olds. Most teenagers, however, are completely unaware of the dangers of drowsy driving. Legislation to increase teens’ recognition of the concrete dangers of drowsy driving is a critical first step in preventing these crashes.

Being awake for 24 consecutive hours impairs reaction time as much as a blood alcohol level of 0.10 – the level that a good-sized teenager would have after drinking three shots of whiskey in an hour. However, this is only a part of the danger. Many young drowsy drivers experience the sudden uncontrollable onset of sleep at a critical moment while
driving, and cannot react to danger at all.

The Sleep Research Society, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the National Sleep Foundation, representing over 5000 sleep scientists and sleep medicine specialists nationwide, have endorsed the need for legislation to prevent these all too common and entirely avoidable tragedies.  The Division of Sleep Medicine will provide any and all support requested of it by the Massachusetts State Commission studying the impact of drowsy driving over the course of next year with the goal of helping formulate effective legislation in Massachusetts.

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