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A Grieving Mom Takes on Drivers Asleep at the Wheel

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Ebullient and magnetic, 20-year-old Maggie McDonnell was the darling of her family, the youngest child of four—by fully 15 years. “The room lit up when she walked in,” says her mother, Carole, 65. Although a passionate ballet dancer, Maggie had enrolled at Rutgers for the fall semester of 1997 to pursue a degree in social work. She spent that summer as a restaurant hostess, but July 2 was her day off—that is, until someone called from work, asking her to fill in. At 11:15 a.m., Maggie left for the restaurant, 10 miles from her home in suburban Turnersville, N.J.

Twenty-eight minutes later she was dead. At 11:43 a.m. a school counselor named Michael Coleman, then 48, dozed at the wheel of his minivan, crossed the white line and plowed head-on into her Hyundai. When her neighbor, a nurse, broke the news, “I started screaming and ran—he had to tackle me,” Carole McDonnell recalls. Her anguish was only beginning. After two trials, Coleman, who admitted he’d gone 30 hours without sleep the day of the crash, was cleared of vehicular homicide, cited for reckless driving and fined $200. (Lab reports showed he had trace amounts of cocaine and alcohol in his system, but police stress that it was too little to have impaired him enough to cause the accident.) “How dare someone kill my baby and get away with murder,” McDonnell says. “The defense hammered the jury: There is no law in New Jersey stating you cannot sleep and drive.”

There is now. Fueled by grief and rage, McDonnell launched a 2½-year lobbying campaign that resulted in Maggie’s Law, the first state law in the nation that makes it a crime to cause death by drowsy driving. Only drivers who cause a fatality after having gone at least 24 hours straight without sleep can be convicted; anything less brings a far lighter charge of negligent driving. If convicted, drivers could receive a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine. Passed easily by the New Jersey legislature, the law was signed by Gov. Jim McGreevey on Aug. 5. Several other states as well as the federal government are considering similar laws. Says McDonnell: “I feel justice has been served.”

Still, support for the bill is not universal. “I think the intent is good,” says New Jersey State Sen. Ronald Rice, an ex-police officer who was one of three senators to vote against Maggie’s Law. “But if someone who fell asleep didn’t acknowledge it, how do you prove that?” It’s not easy, but neither is it impossible, notes Darrel Drobnich, senior director of government and transportation affairs at the National Sleep Foundation. Job records, he says, are crucial: An estimated 24 million Americans—medical and emergency specialists, for instance—put in extended workdays and routinely stay awake for 24-hour stretches. According to Drobnich, other factors include “the time of day. The age of the driver. Are they alone? A lack of skid marks at the scene.”

For McDonnell and her husband, Jim, now 66 and disabled by strokes, the law is small consolation for losing the daughter who, as a toddler, liked to dance on the coffee table. “You know the baby holds a special place in everyone’s heart,” McDonnell says. On the last morning of her life, Maggie modeled a new outfit her mother had bought her. “She came to the door of my room and said, ‘Don’t I look good in this?’ ” McDonnell remembers. “I said yes.”

After Maggie’s death, McDonnell plunged into a two-year depression, quitting her job as a hospital secretary and rarely going out. “Your body shuts down,” she says. “My family was just thankful I got out of bed.” A turning point was when she met Sister Helen Cole of Camden, N.J., a therapist, social worker and Roman Catholic nun known to local police as Sister Charles Bronson for her tough advocacy of the underprivileged. Cole counseled the family and proved an indispensable ally after McDonnell vowed to change the law. “The injustice had consumed her,” Cole says. “Now she doesn’t have to be consumed any more.”

McDonnell often goes to Maggie’s grave, where pink ballet slippers are etched into the stone, along with the words “You danced your way into our hearts.” The day before the bill signing, McDonnell imagined her next visit. “I’ll go with a balloon with ‘Maggie’s Law’ on it,” she said. “I’ll say ‘I did it.’ And she’ll say ‘That’s my mom.'”

Richard Jerome

Robert Calandra in Turnersville