Driving while fatigued can devastate lives

In the early morning hours of July 18, 2006, an 18 year-old Issaquah woman made a series of reckless personal choices. These choices brought near-death and life-long pain to our daughter, Mora Haggerty Shaw.

In the early morning hours of July 18, 2006, an 18 year-old Issaquah woman made a series of reckless personal choices. These choices brought near-death and life-long pain to our daughter, Mora Haggerty Shaw.

Before the young woman began the long drive from Pateros, Wash., back to her home in Issaquah, she had not slept for nearly 24 hours. Despite increasing sleepiness and fatigue shortly after she started the trip, the young woman just kept on driving. Having no idea the driver had not gone to bed the night before, our 17-year-old daughter was asleep in the passenger seat next to her. Mora and the driver were close friends.

Traveling at approximately 60 miles an hour just south of Blewett Pass Summit, the woman’s Nissan Pathfinder hurled off the road and smashed into trees. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.

The terrible force of the impact crushed the right front half of the vehicle and shattered Mora’s body. While passers-by frantically worked to help keep Mora alive, the Washington State Patrol and local aid crews quickly converged on the scene. Still trapped in the wreckage, Mora died. Nearly a minute later, she began to again register faint vital signs on her own. It was a miracle.

Even then, Mora’s strong, stubborn spirit could not save her. En-route to Seattle on the Airlift NW chopper, Mora again passed away. And again at Harborview E.R. Both times, Mora was medically resuscitated from death.

At Harborview, my wife Mary Beth, our son Liam and I began to live every family’s nightmare. The crash had fractured Mora’s shoulder blade, her breastbone, ribs, pelvis, sacrum and her right tibia and fibula. Her lungs had collapsed. Shards of glass severed nerves in Mora’s right hand. Her right ear was nearly torn off, and her left ankle was crushed. That was only the beginning. We were told by the trauma team that Mora was in a coma with significant brain injuries and swelling. They told us they did not expect her to survive, and advised us to make preparations for her funeral.

But Mora did survive. Nearly three hellish weeks and three surgeries later, she began to slowly emerge from her coma. With the same grit and determination that kept her alive against all odds, Mora began a long journey of intense rehabilitation and therapy. Trapped in a broken body and battered mind, over the next six months she had to re-learn all the simple things she was taught as a small child. Even then, her only goal was to resume part of her old life and to regain her old self.

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

At the scene of the accident and afterward, the Washington State Patrol Troopers were dismayed by the driver’s lack of understanding of what she had done. Despite knowing she was tired and fatigued, she did not act on any one of a series of conscious decisions to pull over. The officers were so dismayed, that more than six months later the investigating troopers brought forth a case against the driver to the deputy prosecutor in Kittitas County. 

The deputy prosecutor charged the driver with a felony vehicular assault. But because there is not a specific drowsy driving law in Washington State, there was a fear that some citizens on a jury trial might not understand that like drunk driving, drowsy driving is an irresponsible conscious act that needs a punishment and consequence. The felony charge was plea-bargained down to a criminal misdemeanor – vehicular assault.

During the plea bargain hearing, Kittitas County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Cooper testily asked why this case was even brought into 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 only 30 days and was sentenced to 240 hours of community service. So the driver could understand the terrible results of her actions, Mora and our family begged the judge that the 240 hours be served at a trauma hospital. But because the Judge only languidly “advised” and did not enforce Mora’s plea, the driver served her hours by helping out at Young Life (a religious non-profit youth group), at teen events at a Los Angeles Bible Church and by traveling to Mexico as a volunteer in a student evangelical outreach program sponsored by the private university she attended.

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.

A study by researchers in Australia showed that being awake for eighteen hours produces an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05, and, after 24 hours, a BAC of .10. The effects of drowsy driving are the same as drunk driving: It impairs reaction time, judgment and vision. Drowsy driving decreases performance, vigilance and motivation – especially behind the wheel. It also causes problems with information processing and short-term memory. In Washington State, .08 BAC is considered legally drunk. I’ll reiterate here — the girl who was driving the car Mora was riding in had been awake for nearly 24 hours before she got behind the wheel. 

If you drive on Washington roads and highways today, you will see warning signs about the dangers of drunk driving and about driving with no seatbelts. The Washington State Patrol will now fine you for driving while talking or texting on a cell phone. On these public safety issues, Washington has progressive attitudes, definite legislation and strict enforcement. But the fact that both the defendant in this case and the judge did not understand the seriousness of the drowsy driving decision that changed our daughter’s life forever clearly demonstrates that our legal system and the people of Washington have a real problem.

We all need to change our attitude about the dangers of drowsy driving. Like drinking and driving, specific legislation needs to be introduced to caution people to think twice before they get behind the wheel of a car when they have not slept. Legislation and strict, clear enforcement can hopefully prevent future suffering, terrible injuries or death caused by drowsy driving. Prosecutors would then be able to file cases and mete out meaningful justice under a specific law.

There also needs to be vigorous employment of traditional traffic-safety initiatives: strong education and public awareness; engineering improvements such as continuous shoulder rumble strips; and better evaluation through data collection efforts.  

Many progressive states have proposed laws to deal with this issue. In 2003, New Jersey passed “Maggie’s Law,” the nation’s first law that specifically addresses the issue of drowsy driving. To address the problem of drowsy driving, we must also consider addressing the underlying causes of sleep deprivation, such as lifestyle, lengthy work hours, shift work or untreated sleep disorders. 

Since July 18, 2006, Mary Beth, Liam and I have dedicated our lives to Mora’s ongoing recovery. Mora will have life-long injuries and cognitive issues. But with true fortitude, inner strength and her unique brand of humor, she continues to heal. She also continues to pick up the fragmented shards of the promising life that were violently torn from her in the wreckage of that Nissan Pathfinder that July morning.

As we near the second anniversary of that terrible and so very preventable crash, we cannot change what happened. We can only try through public awareness and legislation to prevent this painful nightmare from happening to anyone else.

Our state senators and representatives need to focus and determine a collective strategy for this serious issue. We ask you to please contact your legislators and ask them about generating a specific drowsy driving law in Washington state. To find your legislators, go to http://apps.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/Default.aspx.

For more information on the quiet national pandemic of drowsy driving and how tragedies like Mora’s can be averted by public awareness and by proactive legislation, go to www.drowsydriving.org. (This includes a testimonial page for Mora Shaw).

All this was the result of one young woman who chose to stay awake all night and then drive 200 miles while she was exhausted and fatigued.

Mora Shaw is a student at Western Washington University under the disability program. Mary Beth Haggerty-Shaw is an investigator for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. William Shaw is marketing director for the Reporter Newspaper group, which includes the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter. Liam Shaw is finishing up his final year earning a Geography degree at Central Washington University, and also has a horse training business.

RELATED: Rehab to Recovery: Issaquah’s Shaw family lobbies for drowsy driving laws