SENTENCING GUIDELINES FOR SLEEP-DEPRIVED DRIVERS
In a recent Court of Appeal decision, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon found the act of driving whilst sleep-deprived to constitute grossly negligent behaviour. In light of this, should motorists cause a fatal accident due to drowsy-driving, they now face a jail term of up to two years, or a fine, or both.
Drowsy-driving is a prevalent concern in Singapore, where there are many who are overworked and sleep-deprived. Sleep is a basic need for our mind and bodies to function; no matter how much will power or determination one has, he cannot overcome the biological effects of sleep deprivation. Adults require a minimum of five hours of sleep each night; any less, and we begin to experience impaired vision and coordination, conditions which seriously hinder a motorist’s ability to drive safely.
Studies over the years have consistently shown that sleep deprivation produces adverse physiological effects which are akin to those that alcohol produces, including cognitive impairment. A motorist who goes without sleep for 17-19 hours effectively performs on the road at an equivalent level to one who has a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. 28 hours without sleep has the same effect on a driver’s performance as a blood alcohol level of 0.10% does. The legal limit for driving in Singapore is set at a blood alcohol level of 0.08%. Driving in a state of sleep-deprivation is thus comparable to drink-driving—both are grossly negligent behaviour.
The Singapore courts are beginning to take notice of the potentially deadly consequences of drowsy-driving, and are now treating such negligent drivers more harshly. In the past, motorists who caused death by negligent driving have typically been allowed to get away with nothing more than a fine. However, all this is about to change; it was held by CJ Menon in the recent case that motorists who negligently drive while unfit to do so deserve jail time.
Indeed, the gravity of the consequences and risks involved in drowsy-driving cannot be downplayed: In March 2013, 26-year old Hue An Li had just worked a 12-hour shift before heading for a night-out with friends for a further 12 hours. She had been driving home after staying awake for a continuous period of 24 hours when she blanked out at the wheel and consequently rammed headfirst into a lorry. As a result, she caused the death of one man and caused another to become paralysed from the waist down. 10 others were also injured in the accident.
Hue was initially sentenced to a fine of $10,000 and a 5-year ban from driving. On appeal however, her sentence was increased to 4 weeks imprisonment for her gross negligence.
It remains to be seen the impact that this case will have on future court decisions. It is as of yet unclear if 24 hours of no sleep will be taken as the minimum threshold before a case of gross negligence is made out, or otherwise how rigidly this standard ought to be applied, or if it will only apply in cases involving a fatal accident. There are also difficulties in quantifying one’s drowsiness level, and in proving to the court that a motorist was indeed sleep-deprived at the time of the accident.
In any event, it is clearly CJ Menon’s intention for this change in position toward negligent drivers to remind and highlight to other motorists the terrible risks they take upon other road users, and not least upon themselves, when they choose to drive despite being unfit to do so.