It is about noon on Dec.21, 1999. Melissa Cullen and her dad, Marvin Parks Jr., were driving in Delaware to place a Christmas wreath by her mother's graveside. Then they were going to share a lunch, just the two of them.
The last thing Melissa remembers is seeing a car veer across the center line - a car with no driver. When she woke up, he father, 74 was dead. Melissa had injuries that required multiple surgeries and confined her to a wheelchair for seven months. She could not return to work as a teacher, could not care for her 3-year-old son and lost her house because of medical bills.
What caused the crash in midday ? A 39-year-old woman who had fallen asleep at the wheel. She was a night-shift worker and single mom with four children who had worked all night, then slept less than three hours before the crash. " She got two points on her license and a $115 fine for killing my dad," says Melissa, 42. " I hoped they would at least revoke her license for while and make her take classes. My dad fought in two wars, spent 42 years working as a chemical engineer for DuPont, cared for my mom through cancer and was a model citizen." But Delaware, like 48 other states, has no specific legal penalties for falling asleep at the wheel.
"Drowsy driving is a silent tragedy," says David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, one of the nation's top sleep experts. The best estimates are that 100,000 auto crashes each year are the result of driver fatigue, with at least 71,000 people injured and 1500 killed. But most experts believe those figures are far too low. In Europe - which does measure incidents of drowsy driving - up to 20% of highway crashes are caused by driver fatigue.
By Lyric Wallwork Winik Published: