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Tuesday, September 30, 2003

My life as a criminal

It's 5am. I haven't slept in a long time. I'm wearing an orange and black stocking cap that doesn't belong to me. I-55 through Memphis, TN is a strange stretch of road, hop-skipping back and forth between Arkansas, Tennessee, and eventually Mississippi. Making the quick turns and merging correctly requires peak concentration. I forgot to pack that, so I'm making do with a little white pill they sold over the counter at home. It's called ephedrine and it seems to be doing the trick.

I'm awake, my radio is blasting, and in a few short hours I'll be checking into a hotel in New Orleans.

It's March of 1995 and save the few extra miles per hour I'm putting on the speedometer, I am a law abiding citizen.

It's a stretch of highway that eventually I will become very familiar with. Later in life I will drive north eight hours, twice a month, in the dead of night. I'll almost always be tired. I will always make it safely to the warm bed at the end of the line.

Then, the year 2000. Two men decided it would be a good idea to take a few people hostage. After all, these men were locked up in a medium security prison and they weren't feeling all that neighborly. I stood outside the prison, watching my waking hours tick-tock by. I had been up for nearly 24 hours when the guys decided they were bored with the whole hostage thing and gave up. The three hour drive from prison to bed was marked with nodding, slipping, and probably at one point falling into sleep. I shared the responsibilities with another driver, but he wasn't in much better shape than me. By both of our accounts, we shouldn't have made it home and in bed two hours before our next work shift was supposed to begin. We laughed when one of our bosses called us (while we were still on the road home) and asked when we would be coming into work.

In New Jersey, state lawmakers have just passed Maggie's Law. It allows prosecutors to go after drivers who are DWD--Driving While Drowsy. The people behind the law cite a few anecdotes to support their assertion that drowsy drivers kill. The examples are horrifying. A 20 year old college student killed by a sleeping driver. A tour bus operator who gambled all night then got behind the wheel. A businessman who killed two people after falling asleep at the wheel, then continued on to his business meeting.

The law sounds like a good idea, but I'm not sure I'm convinced. I get a little wiggly when the government starts criminalizing the amount of sleep I've had.

Make no mistake, I am one of the biggest advocates of road safety. I lost a cousin and a good friend in car wrecks. I wear my seat belt. In the past few years, I've taken to driving at safe speeds.

However, there was a time or two in college I drove after having too much to drink. There were a few years when I didn't wear my seatbelt. I used to think it was fun to drive 125mph down old country farm roads. And goodness knows I've driven while drowsy.

Perhaps...and this is just a post-lunch, lazy idea...but perhaps we should take a harder look at how we as a society treat sleep. Simply put: We treat sleep as weakness. Sleep is lack of productivity. Sleep is for those people who can't hack it. A truck driver has been six days on the road. A business exec has a big presentation tomorrow. A news guy has one final story to file. We will--to be a little trite--sleep when we're dead.

In college I was not-too-kindly referred to as Bedsore. I slept a lot. Since then, my body chemistry has reversed itself. Now I feel like shit if I get more than seven hours sleep. I more commonly get about six hours and don't feel too bad.

But is that enough to drive through New Jersey?

Or maybe a better question is: Why would I want to drive through New Jersey in the first place?


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