A courageous mother turns tragedy into victory by pushing to pass a new drowsy driving law in the state of New Jersey.
My daughter Maggie was the baby of the family. She was 5’9", brunette with blue eyes and a smile that would steal anybody’s heart—the room lit up when she walked in. She was 20 years old when she was killed by a man who hit her in a head-on collision after crossing three lanes on a highway in New Jersey; he was asleep at the wheel of his van. Michael Coleman had admittedly partied at a crack house and had not slept in more than 30 hours. He knew he was too tired to drive but chose not to sleep and admitted that to the court.
Witnesses on the road saw him cross lanes into oncoming traffic more than once, wake up, and pull back into his lane. He realized he was falling asleep but disregarded his fatigue; the third time he crossed into traffic, it was Maggie who was the victim. The prosecutor pressed charges as he believed that Coleman had been driving recklessly and should be held criminally responsible.
He was indicted by a grand jury and charged with vehicular homicide. At this time, I was thrown into a foreign world of attorneys and courtrooms. Nothing could have prepared me for such an event as it was all so overwhelming. My brain seemed to shut down and simple facts needed to be repeated because the horror of it was just too difficult to comprehend all at once.
We were in court 40 times over a 31/2-year period due to delays and postponements. We sat through two murder trials because the first one ended in a deadlocked jury. The second jury acquitted Coleman as the defense hammered over and over that “There is no law in the state of New Jersey stating that you can’t sleep and drive.” Those words haunted me. Coleman received a $200 fine and a suspended 6-month sentence. He would have received the same sentence if he had hit a tree. What a mockery of justice. Not guilty does not mean innocent; not guilty in this case meant there was a big loophole in the law that needed to be closed.
Not only was Maggie killed, she had been abused by the system as it failed to bring her justice. Not only did I lose my daughter, I lost faith in the justice system. I was abused by the very system that was supposed to protect me. I was devastated when the defense objected to showing Maggie’s picture to the jury when the attorney said that she was fairly attractive and that would bias the jury. The judge threw the picture out as well as her name when the defense objected by saying, “What’s the difference if he killed Maggie McDonnell or anyone else. Just charge him with vehicular homicide.” So in the end, Maggie was nameless and faceless in the eyes of the court. Imagine a mother forced to accept this unfairness. Needless to say, my life was changed forever. My family and I were not prepared for the injustice that had occurred. Professional drivers have limitations so why shouldn’t everyone who holds a driver’s license? Research has proven that being awake for 24 hours or longer affects a person’s motor skills to an extent that is equivalent to driving legally drunk.
I made the decision to fight back and against all odds, I took on City Hall. I was fortunate to have Assemblyman Geist and Senator Sweeney introduce legislation in the New Jersey Assembly and Senate to change the vehicular homicide code. They named it Maggie’s Law, which was passed by the full Senate unanimously 38-0 as well as by the general Assembly 74-4. Finally, on August 5, 2003, Governor James McGreevey signed Maggie’s Law 6 years after her death. I had won.
Maggie’s Law means many things to me, and while Maggie cannot be brought back, I can turn the page and begin a new chapter in my life knowing that I helped to make a difference. It will prevent the defense in future cases from using inadequate laws as a tool to defend the guilty. It will also protect another family from enduring the pain of injustice and allow a jury the opportunity to consider sleep deprivation as recklessness in vehicular homicide. Now the punishment is up to a 10-year prison sentence and a $150,000 fine, which is a far cry from a mere $200 fine. I feel like we had our third trial and Michael Coleman was finally convicted through people who count—Senators, Assemblymen, and the Governor—all who agreed Coleman was guilty and should have been convicted. This was a wake-up call for New Jersey and the first law of its kind to be passed in the nation. New Jersey has stepped up to the plate and acknowledged the problem.
Attorney General Peter Harvey said, “This is a very serious law. A driver asleep at the wheel is more dangerous than an intoxicated driver, as people who fall asleep at the wheel lose consciousness. Sometimes their foot is on the accelerator, which means the car is accelerating and can eventually collide with something or somebody.” This is a very important law as it will now permit prosecutors to argue in court that there is a presumption in favor of recklessness when someone has fallen asleep at the wheel after being awake for 24 hours or more. The loophole has been closed. Now it is up to the prosecutors to take Maggie’s Law and use it to right the wrong.
The story of Maggie and the injustice that occurred has been told across the nation. The television show 48 Hours did a profile on Maggie; People Magazine did a two-page article; and the Early Show with Julie Chan and CNN News, Inside Edition, the Today Show with Katie Curic, as well as almost every television station in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York covered the story. Not only did it attract national attention, it also made international news, as journalists from the BBC in England flew over and did a documentary on Maggie’s story; her picture was on the front page of the Yorkshire Post.
Maggie’s Law was introduced in Congress by Rep Rob Andrews and now awaits a vote in the House of Representatives. This is a different version of Maggie’s Law as it deals with driver education and preventative measures such as rumble strips on the road.
I have been asked numerous times why I decided to help change the law and how I accomplished such a feat. The answer is that I felt this was a long overdue, just, and honest law that needed to be made legal. Falling asleep at the wheel was on the book as a minor offense, but we all know killing someone is a major offense. As a mother, it is plain and simple to me. If a person falls asleep at the wheel and kills someone, that person has put himself to the test, failed, and is guilty. Call it mother’s intuition, but I knew in my heart that this situation was wrong and unacceptable. As to how I made this law possible, I was relentless and never gave up, along with a little bit of beginner’s luck and an angel on my shoulder.
I am living proof that one person can make a difference. I am Maggie’s voice, and with the estimated 1,500 Americans who die each year in sleep-related crashes, I am sure that Maggie is looking down, smiling, and saying, “That’s my mom.”
Carole McDonnell is the mother of Maggie McDonnell and the reason Maggie’s Law was passed in New Jersey.