Let’s take on the danger of drowsy driving

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

  • BY Wire Service
  • Saturday, July 26, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

Legislation, awareness can prevent what happened to our daughter

In the early-morning hours of July 18, 2006, an 18-year-old Issaquah woman made a series of personal choices. These choices brought near-death and lifelong 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 hadn’t 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 hadn’t 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 hurtled 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 passersby frantically worked to help keep Mora alive, the WState Patrol and local aid crews quickly converged on the scene. Still trapped in the wreckage, Mora passed away. 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 couldn’t save her. En route to Seattle on the Airlift Northwest chopper, Mora again passed away. She did so again in the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center. Both times, Mora was medically resuscitated from death.

At Harborview, we and our son, Liam, 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 didn’t 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, the State Patrol troopers were dismayed by the driver’s lack of understanding of what she did. That despite knowing she was tired and fatigued, she didn’t act on any one of a series of conscious decisions to pull over. So dismayed, 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 isn’t a specific drowsy-driving law in Washington, 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 Cooper didn’t 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 244 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 244 hours be served at a trauma hospital. But because the judge only languidly “advised” and didn’t 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.

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, .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 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 didn’t understand the seriousness of the drowsy driving decision that changed Mora’s life forever, our legal system and the people of Washington have a real problem.

Since July 18, 2006, we have dedicated our lives to Mora’s ongoing recovery. Mora will have lifelong 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 that July morning.

As we near the second anniversary of that terrible and so very preventable crash, we can’t 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 toward this serious issue. We ask you to please contact your legislators and ask them about generating a specific drowsy-driving law in Washington.

 Mary Beth Haggerty-Shaw is an investigator for the state attorney general. William Shaw is marketing director for the Reporter Newspapers group.


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