Driving while fatigued can devastate lives

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Issaquah residents Mary Beth Haggerty-Shaw and William Shaw argue that Washington state should treat people who drive fatigued like it treats drunk drivers.

An 18 year-old Issaquah woman got behind the wheel of her car on July 18, 2006. When she did, she made a series of reckless personal choices that brought near-death and life-long pain to our daughter Mora Shaw.

The driver’s journey was over the Cascades from Pateros to Issaquah. She had not slept for nearly 24 hours.

Having no idea the driver had not gone to bed the night before, her friend — 17-year-old Mora Shaw — was asleep in the passenger seat next to her.

South of Blewett Pass, the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Her Nissan Pathfinder hurled off the road and smashed into trees, crushing the right front half of the vehicle.

While passers-by frantically worked to help keep Mora Shaw alive, the State Patrol converged on the scene. Trapped in the wreckage, Mora passed away. Nearly a minute later, she began to miraculously register faint vital signs again.

On the Airlift NW chopper to Seattle and at Harborview E.R., Mora again passed away. Both times, she was resuscitated.

Our family nightmare began as we learned the details of Mora’s injuries.

The impact had crushed her ankle. It fractured her shoulder blade, breastbone, ribs, pelvis, sacrum, tibia and fibula and collapsed her lungs. Glass severed the nerves in Mora’s right hand and nearly tore off her ear.

That was only the beginning. The trauma team told us that Mora was in a coma with significant brain injuries.

They did not expect her to survive.

Three weeks later Mora began to emerge from her coma. She underwent multiple surgeries, intense rehabilitation and therapy for months.

With a broken body and battered mind, Mora had to re-learn all the simple things she was taught as a small child.

Her only goal was to resume part of her old life and regain her old self.

All this, because one young woman chose to stay awake all night and then drive 200 miles while she was fatigued.

Dismayed by the driver’s lack of understanding of her actions before and after the accident, the State Troopers in charge of the accident investigation brought forth a case of felony vehicular assault against her in Kittitas County.

Because there is not a specific drowsy-driving law in Washington state, there was a fear that some on a jury might not understand that, like drunk driving, drowsy driving is an irresponsible, conscious act that demands punishment and consequence.

During the plea-bargain hearing, Kittitas County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Cooper testily asked why this case was even brought in to his courtroom. Like the driver, even Judge Cooper did not understand the seriousness and implications of drowsy driving.

So much for our legal system.

The driver had her license suspended for 30 days and was sentenced to 240 hours of community service.

So the driver could truly understand the results of her actions, we as a family begged the judge that the community service be served in a trauma hospital.

The judge languidly “advised,” but did not enforce, our plea.

The defendant served her hours by helping at Young Life, teen events at a Los Angeles Bible Church and as a volunteer in a student evangelical program in Mexico, sponsored by her university.

So much for taking personal responsibility for your own actions.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses.

The effects of drowsy driving are the same as drunk driving. It impairs reaction time, judgment and vision. It decreases performance, vigilance and motivation.

A study by researchers in Australia showed that being awake for 18 hours produces an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05, and after 24 hours a BAC of .10.

In Washington state, .08 BAC is considered legally drunk. The driver was awake for nearly 24 hours before she drove. 

On our highways today you will see warnings about drunk driving or driving with no seatbelts. There are fines for driving while talking or texting on a cell phone.

On these public safety issues, Washington has progressive attitudes, public awareness, definite legislation and strict enforcement. But when both the defendant and Judge Cooper did not understand the seriousness of the drowsy driving decision that changed Mora Shaw’s life forever, our legal system and the people of Washington have a real problem.

Specific drowsy-driving legislation, clear enforcement and meaningful penalties need to be introduced to make people think twice before they get behind the wheel of a car.

In 2003, New Jersey passed “Maggie’s Law,” the nation’s first law that specifically addresses the issue of drowsy driving. Since then, many progressive states have proposed or crafted laws to deal with this issue.

Our own state senators and representatives need to focus their energies towards this serious issue.

We as a family have dedicated our lives to Mora’s recovery. She will have life-long injuries and cognitive issues.

With amazing inner-strength, she continues to heal and to pick up the fragments of her promising life that was violently torn from her that July morning.

We as Mora’s parents cannot change the past, but we can try through public awareness and legislation to prevent this painful nightmare from happening to any one else.

We ask you to contact your legislators and ask them to generate a specific drowsy-driving law in Washington state.

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