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.

  • Friday, July 18, 2008 5:23pm
  • Opinion

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, WA, 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, 17-year-old Mora Shaw 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 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 died. She did so again in the E.R. at Harborview Medical Center. 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 Mora’s nerves in her right hand. Her right ear was nearly torn off. Mora’s left ankle was crushed. And 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 a 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 following it, State Patrol Troopers were dismayed by the driver’s lack of understanding of what she did. Despite knowing she was tired and fatigued, she did not act on any one of a series of conscious decisions to pull over. So dismayed were the Troopers, that over six months later the Troopers in charge of the accident investigation brought forth a case against the driver to the Deputy Prosecutor in Kittitas County.

The deputy prosecutor charged her 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 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 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 we as a family begged the judge that the 240 hours be served at a trauma hospital. But because the judge only “advised” and did not enforce Mora’s plea, the driver served her hours by helping out at Young Life (a religious nonprofit 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 18 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. The driver was 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 when both the defendant and Judge Cooper did not understand the seriousness of the drowsy driving decision that changed Mora life forever, our legal system and the people of Washington have a real problem.

We all need to change our attitude toward 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 hopefully can prevent future suffering, terrible injuries or death caused by drowsy driving. Prosecutors also can file cases and justice can be meted out 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 also must 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 as parents and her brother 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.

Mora also continues to pick up the fragmented shards of the promising life that was 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 as Mora’s parents cannot change what happened. We can only try through public awareness and legislation to prevent this painful nightmare from happening to any one else.

Our state senators and representatives need to focus and put their collective strategies towards 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: 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 in Washington state, please go to www.drowsydriving.org. (This includes a testimonial page for Mora).

All this, because one young woman 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 Newspapers. Liam Shaw is finishing up his final year earning a Geography degree at Central Washington University, and also has a horse training business.

More in Opinion

Heroin injection sites are not the answer to opioid epidemic | Guest Column

Response to article about Vancouver’s legal heroin injection sites to combat opioid epidemic.

Singles’ Awareness Day | Guest Column

One single person’s view of Valentine’s.

Place on the Eastside where Christmas spirit thrives year-round | Guest Column

Crossroads Mall in Bellevue is a melting pot of people.

Message from new KCLS director | Book Nook

Director excited to oversee completion of $172 million Capital Improvement Plan.

Time to focus on school choice in Bellevue and across America | Guest Column

by Andrew R. Campanella National School Choice Week Next week, schools, homeschool… Continue reading

For opponents of a carbon tax, an initiative threat looms

If legislators don’t act on the governor’s legislation, a plan could land on the November ballot.

Inslee: ‘It’s our state’s destiny … to fight climate change’

In his State-of-the-State address, the governor made the case for an ambitious carbon tax.

Eyman isn’t letting a bad 2017 slow him down in the new year | The Petri Dish

The year ended as Eyman did not get enough signatures for a ballot to reduce car tab fees.

Leading with empathy in 2018 | Guest Column

By James Whitfield Special to the Reporter As president and CEO of… Continue reading

Reflecting on the ‘old’ and ringing in the “New” Year | Book Nook

The final column of KCLS’s interim director, Stephen A. Smith.

Displaced by a hurricane: Disaster relocation lessons

Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series by Bellevue… Continue reading

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks with Sound Publishing staff during a meeting on Jan. 20 at the Bellevue Reporter office. Photo by Matt Phelps/Kirkland Reporter
Judge delivers crushing blow to Inslee’s Clean Air Rule

It was the centerpiece of the governor’s crusade against climate change. Now it’s gone.