Governor Jay Inslee has proclaimed this week, November 2 to 9, as Drowsy Driving Prevention Week in Washington state. While this proclamation is a significant step towardsdrowsy driving awareness and prevention, there is much more that needs to be done to keep this pandemic off of our roads and highways. We must change attitudes about drowsy driving first.
On Oct. 4, the Issaquah Police Department responded to a report of a vehicle that was being driven erratically in the Issaquah Highlands. An officer quickly found the car parked in the Safeway parking lot. The driver was fast asleep. When he was woken up and interviewed, he told IPD he had been working almost 72 hours straight before he got behind the wheel of his car to go home.
While in line at the bank recently, I heard a conversation between a customer and a bank teller. The customer told of his recent extreme sports bike trip in the Cascades. He then casually said that he had been up for over 24 hours before he drove back over Snoqualmie Pass to his home in Bellevue. The somewhat macho tone of the biker was as if driving while tired was also part of his extreme sport. And the teller was impressed.
A co-worker has a second job in addition to her “day job.” She mentioned that many times each week she only got around four hours of sleep each night. When she drove home from her “moonlighting” job at two or three in the morning, she was usually very tired. But she said “it was a straight line on the freeway,” and that she knew the way home—even when exhausted.
In 2006, our then 17-year-old daughter, Mora, nearly died from multiple fractures and a traumatic brain injury caused by a driver who was awake for 24 hours and who had fallen asleep at the wheel of her car. Several months after the accident, Mora was still in recovery and rehabilitation. During that time, we talked with the nurses and caregivers about what caused Mora’s injuries. A few of the nurses said that they regularly work double shifts each week and drove home exhausted after being up nearly 24 hours. Even in front of our daughter, they freely said they did not want any increased drowsy driving laws or penalties because they said caregivers were often the worst offenders.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that “cognitive impairment after being approximately 18 hours awake is similar to that of someone with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. After about 24 hours awake, impairment is equivalent to a BAC of 0.10%, higher than the legal limit in all states.” Not only every driver in our state, but also our legislators and our judges need to understand the widespread seriousness of drowsy driving, and how many people are injured and killed by this pandemic each year. Attitudes about drowsy driving need to change.
But like attitudes about drunk driving 30 years ago, like texting while driving and distracted driving today, the only thing that will really change attitudes, mindsets and habits toward getting behind the wheel of a car when you have not slept for 20 or more hours is swift and sure penalties.
Before others are injured or killed by drowsy drivers, we urge our state legislators to put aside the bickering of partisan politics and to beef up Washington’s reckless driving laws to include penalties if a driver injures or kills someone after deliberately getting behind the wheel of a car after being awake over 20 hours.
Yes, in some cases, an accident caused by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel may be harder to prove than drunk driving. But drowsy driving kills, injures and shatters lives just the same as drunk driving. Just ask the survivors. Ask the family and friends of those lost or injured last month or last year from the actions of a drowsy driver. Just ask our daughter.
We want all drivers in Washington to be aware of their level of fatigue or alertness before they get behind the wheel of a car…..this week, during the busy holiday season, and throughout the year. Save a life, and get some rest.