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Is Drowsy Driving a Defense to a DUI?

Many of us have felt ourselves drifting off while driving. It can happen after a long drive, when not getting enough sleep, or even sitting in traffic on a warm day. Drowsiness while driving is common but it can be dangerous. In some ways, a drowsy driver can look similar to a drunk driver on the road. 

Drivers can be pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving even if they were totally sober. A police officer may suspect impaired driving for a driver who is on their phone, distracted by kids in the back seat, or drowsy driving. If the police officer doesn't believe the driver, a drowsy driver can be arrested on suspicion of impaired driving. 

If you end up under arrest just because you were too tired to keep your eyes on the road, make sure you call a California DUI lawyer so you don't end up pleading guilty to a crime you did not commit. 

How Dangerous Is Drowsy Driving?

According to the California Highway Patrol (CHP), "In California in 2019 and 2020, drowsy drivers caused more than 11,000 crashes, resulting in 6,411 injuries and 73 deaths. Drowsiness impacts anyone's ability to drive safely by slowing reaction times and making it harder to pay attention to the road."

A police officer could make a traffic stop for someone who is drowsy if they are driving unsafely or fail to follow the traffic laws. However, drowsy driving is not against the law. Only 2 states (New Jersey and Arkansas) have laws penalizing drowsy driving when it causes an injury accident or kills someone. These states even define fatigue as being without sleep for a period in excess of 24 hours. 

If California drivers were penalized for driving while fatigued, there would be a lot of ticketed drivers on the road. According to the California Metropolitan Transportation Commission, time spent in traffic has increased 1.5 times the rate of population in the area, with the majority of Bay Area congestion happening in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

Drivers who are too tired to drive safely could be ticketed for reckless driving. Under California Vehicle Code Section 23103, “A person who drives a vehicle upon a highway in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.”

What To Do If You're Too Tired to Drive

Many drivers feel like they don't have any other alternative when they have to get somewhere, even though they know they are overly tired. Telling drivers to get more sleep isn't a helpful solution. Drinking coffee or energy drinks may only be a temporary fix and isn't enough for seriously sleep-deprived drivers. You may try pulling over to take a short nap, which can increase alertness for a short period.  

Does Drowsy Driving Look Like Drunk Driving?

When police officers are looking for drunk drivers on the road, they may look for any traffic violation to justify a traffic stop. However, there are specific signs police officers are trained to look for in identifying possible drunk drivers. Unfortunately for tired drivers, those signs may also indicate drowsy driving. Signs of impairment or drowsiness may include: 

  • Weaving across lane lines
  • Straddling a lane line 
  • Swerving 
  • Turning with a wide radius 
  • Drifting 
  • Almost striking a vehicle or other object 
  • Following too closely
  • Improper or unsafe lane change 

Driving After Drinking and While Tired 

If a driver is tired, they may just be ticketed for reckless driving and sent on their way. However, what happens if a driver is pulled over for dangerous driving but the driver had one beer before getting in the car? In many cases, drowsiness and alcohol go hand-in-hand to make the driver appear more impaired than their alcohol level would indicate. 

If a police officer asks a drowsy driver how many drinks they had and the driver answers "one," the officer now has justification to further investigate to determine if the driver is unlawfully impaired. If the driver says "none," but the officer can smell the beer on a driver's breath, they have reason to believe the driver is lying and can justify a further investigation for drunk driving. 

Many California drivers are surprised to find out they can be arrested for a DUI even if their blood alcohol content (BAC) is below the legal limit. Under California Vehicle Code 23152(a), "It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage to drive a vehicle."

“Under the influence” is not based directly on the driver's BAC. Instead, it means that as a result of drinking alcohol, the driver's mental or physical abilities are so impaired that they are no longer able to drive a vehicle with the caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances.

Is Sleepiness a Defense to a DUI?

Drowsy driving can lead to a DUI arrest, especially when the driver has also had alcohol. Even if the driver is not drunk enough to get a per se DUI (0.08% or higher for most drivers), they can still be arrested for driving under the influence. Unfortunately, claiming the driver was also tired may not be enough of a defense. 

However, an experienced East Bay DUI defense lawyer may use a combination of legal defenses to cast doubt on the prosecutor's case. In a criminal case, the state has to prove each element of the offense "beyond a reasonable doubt." If you can show doubt in even one element, you should be found not guilty. 

Your DUI defense attorney can identify several defense options to show the jury that the prosecutor has not proven each element beyond a reasonable doubt. Possible defense strategies may include: 

Experienced East Bay DUI Defense Lawyer 

Lynn Gorelick has more than 39 years of East Bay DUI defense experience and understands how much is at stake after a DUI arrest. She understands how to approach the individual facts of each case for the greatest chance of success to avoid a conviction. If you are facing DUI charges anywhere in Oakland, Alameda County, or Contra Costa County, contact Lynn Gorelick.

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