Channel 2 Investigates

Drowsy driving vs. drunk driving: Same dangers but only one is illegal

TROUP COUNTY, Ga. — Thousands of fatal car accidents across the U.S. this year may have been prevented if drivers got more sleep.

Although studies show being tired has the same effects as being drunk, there is no Georgia law against drowsy driving.

Only two states, New Jersey and Arkansas, have laws that make it illegal to drive while drowsy.

After suffering a terrible loss caused by a drowsy driver, a LaGrange family wants Georgia to be the third.

The family of Patricia Sams was stunned when they found out the driver who hit and killed her could only be charged with a misdemeanor -- even after admitting to falling asleep before the crash.

They believe she should have faced time behind bars like with drunk driving.

But experts say even if there was a law making it illegal to drive drowsy, enforcing it would be nearly impossible.

"She was a one of a kind woman, very special," Jennifer Biles told Channel 2 reporter Dave Huddleston about her mother Patricia Sams.

Huddleston was in Troup County as Biles returned to a stretch of road where her life changed forever. Biles placed a memorial cross there in honor of her mother who died in 2017.

Cross on side of the road in honor of Patricia Sams

Sams, along with Biles' daughter and sister, was driving on West Point Road in Lagrange when an oncoming car crossed the center-line.

The two vehicles collided head-on, Sam's Ford Expedition spun around, crashing into an embankment.

"I just seen the car and my daughter crying, begging me. She was going 'Please Mama, help my Nana. She’s hurt so bad,’" Biles said.

Biles' mother did not survive. She was 53. Her daughter and sister were severely injured but alive.

"I walk around feeling like maybe I’ve lost my identity, like I don’t know who I am anymore without my mother," Biles said.

The devastation was magnified after learning the cause of the crash -- the other driver had fallen asleep after working an early morning shift.

The crash where Patricia Sams was killed.

Worse, the driver could only be charged with second degree vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor in Georgia with no jail time.

Biles and her family were furious.

"There’s not really a punishment that fits the crime for a situation like this," Biles said.

And Georgia is not alone.

Only two states, New Jersey and Arkansas, have laws making it a felony if a driver injures or kills another after falling asleep while driving.

But even in those states, enforcing it is extremely difficult.

The law says the driver must have been without sleep for more than 24-hours.

"This is a monster that we know is out there. It’s a severe problem," Harris Blackwood with the Governor's Office of Highway Safety told Huddleston.

Blackwood says aside from public education campaigns, there simply is no easy solution to decreasing these incidents.


He says a Georgia drowsy driving law would be virtually unenforceable.

That's because there is no tool to test for sleepiness or fatigue.

"We can prove distraction now because we can tell if their phone was in their hand. If somebody’s been drinking, we can do a blood test," Blackwood said.

Huddleston researched to find the Georgia State Patrol responded to 1,148 crashes so far in 2018 in which a driver fell asleep.

In 2017, there were 1,325 crashes.

According to the Governor's Highway Safety Association there are, on average, 6,400 fatal drowsy driving crashes each year in the U.S.

But it's widely accepted drowsy driving crashes are severely under-reported.

"This prosecutor and judge were faced with the existing state of the law, you have a driver who admits they fell asleep and there is zero jail time punishment," Chris Simon, Biles' attorney told Huddleston.

Biles says the death of her mother and no tough laws on the books for drowsy driving makes it extremely painful. She only hopes her mother's death sends a wake-up call to tired drivers and to lawmakers.

Jennifer Biles

"Our lives have been ruined. How many more preventable crimes, crashes, accidents have to happen before we change the culture of driving?" Biles asked.

Studies show a lack of sleep mimics being drunk. If you've been awake for 24 hours, it's the equivalent of having a .10% blood-alcohol concentration.

That's higher than the .08 % which is the legal limit in all states.