Drowsy driving: a quiet pandemic

Three short years ago this week, an 18-year-old young woman named Laura fell asleep. Her falling asleep quickly resulted in a nightmare.

Three short years ago this week, an 18-year-old young woman named Laura fell asleep. Her falling asleep quickly resulted in a nightmare.

Recent grads of Issaquah High School, Laura and her two friends Mora and Lindsay had enjoyed an innocent week of sun and water at Laura’s family home in Pateros, Wash. Soon, it was time for them to drive back home. They planned on enjoying the rest of summer and preparing for their first year of college. Although Laura had been awake for more than 24 hours, she chose to drive the nearly 200 miles, across two mountain passes, back home.

Cresting the Blewett Pass summit on Highway 97, Laura drifted off to sleep behind the wheel of her Nissan Pathfinder. The vehicle went off the shoulder and slammed into nearby trees at over 60 miles per hour. The impact mangled and crushed the right front half of the Pathfinder. Laura’s friend Mora was in the front passenger seat next to her.

Two Good Samaritans, a plumber and a minister, stopped and helped Laura and Lindsay out of the car. Both girls were only slightly injured. Their friend Mora was encased in the shattered wreckage, dead or dying. Although the plumber attempted to pry open the twisted front passenger door, he and the minister could not do much to help her. A Washington State Trooper was soon on the scene and radioed the Leavenworth aid crews to help the two girls. For 17 year-old Mora Shaw, he called the Kittitas County Coroner.

A woman named Carlee Norwood was driving by. Carlee, an emergency room trauma nurse, stopped and quickly took over the two men’s efforts to assist Mora, who was still in the wreckage. Mora had no vital signs. As the men began to pray the 23rd Psalm, the experienced nurse applied what desperate medical procedures she could to the parts of Mora’s shattered, lifeless body she could reach. Carlee felt that Mora was gone, but continued to hold and comfort her head and talk to her, calling her name during what she felt was probably Mora’s last moments on Earth. But, because of Carlee’s determined efforts, Mora eventually began to breathe again.

Aid crews soon converged on the scene, but Mora again succumbed to her injuries. In medical terms, she died during the Airlift Northwest helicopter flight to Seattle, and again at Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room. Both times, she was resuscitated from death by medical means.

At Harborview, the trauma team did not expect our daughter to survive the day. They urged my wife Mary Beth and I to make immediate preparations for her funeral. During the crash, Mora suffered over a dozen serious fractures throughout her body, including her pelvis and a crushed left ankle. Broken glass had severed the nerves in her right hand. One lung had collapsed, the other punctured. Her ear was nearly torn off. And that was only the beginning. Mora was in a coma with severe traumatic brain injuries and swelling. She needed a ventilator to breathe.

But Mora did survive the day. Over two weeks and multiple surgeries later she began to slowly emerge from her coma. With the same amazing determination that kept her alive against all odds, Mora began a hellish journey of rehabilitation and therapy. Trapped in a body cast and an injured mind, over the next exhausting nine months Mora had to re-learn all the simple things she was taught as a small child: to talk, eat, bathe, dress and eventually, walk. Even then, her only goal was to one day to regain her old self back and to resume her old life. All this, because a young woman decided to stay awake all night and drive 200 miles while she was exhausted and fatigued.

The State Troopers carrying out the accident investigation charged the driver with felony vehicular assault. The Kittitas County Prosecutor however, feared a jury might not understand that like drunk driving, drowsy driving is an irresponsible conscious act that needs a punishment and a 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. Sadly, like the driver, even Judge Cooper did not understand the seriousness and implications of drowsy driving. So much for our legal system.

The driver was elicited a small fine, had her license suspended for thirty days and was sentenced to two hundred and forty hours of light ‘community service.’ So much for taking personal responsibility for your own actions.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 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 or driving while medicated: it impairs reaction time, judgment and vision. Drowsy driving decreases performance, vigilance and motivation. It also causes problems with information processing and short-term memory. Researchers in Australia showed that being awake for eighteen hours produces an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05. After being awake for 24 hours, most showed impairment equal to a BAC of .10. In Washington State, .08 BAC is considered legally drunk. Mora’s driver was awake for nearly twenty four hours before she got behind the wheel.

Our citizens and our state must change its attitude toward the dangers of drowsy driving. Like driving while intoxicated, definite 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. Strict, clear enforcement can hopefully prevent future suffering, terrible injuries or death caused by drowsy driving. Prosecutors should also be able to file cases and mete out meaningful justice under a specific law.

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 that hellish day on July 18, 2006, my wife Mary Beth and our son Liam have dedicated much of our lives towards Mora’s ongoing recovery. She will have life-long injuries and cognitive issues. Despite the efforts of one of the best ankle surgeons in the world, Mora still may have to have her foot amputated. But with her unique brand of humor and her amazing inner-strength, Mora continues to pick up the pieces of the promising life that was recklessly torn from her one sunny morning in mid-July.

As we pass the third anniversary of this so-very-preventable crash, we as Mora’s parents cannot change what happened. We can only strive through public awareness and the urging of our state legislators toward firm action to prevent this tragedy from happening to any one else. We hope you will join us.

Risky behavior

Specific at-risk groups that drive while fatigued include:

• Young adults ages 16 to 26

• Shift workers and people with long work hours (working the night shift increases your risk by nearly 6 times; rotating-shift workers and people working more than 60 hours a week need to be particularly careful)

• People with undiagnosed or untreated disorders-people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea have been shown to have up to a seven times increased risk of falling asleep at the wheel

• Business travelers-who spend many hours driving or may be jet lagged

• Commercial drivers-especially long-haul drivers — at least 15 percent of all heavy truck crashes involve fatigue

Be safe

Before you get behind the wheel, consider whether you are:

• Sleep-deprived or fatigued (six hours or less of sleep triples your risk)

• Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia), poor quality sleep, or a sleep debt

• Driving long distances without proper rest breaks

• Driving through the night, or driving at a time when you would normally be asleep

• Taking sedating medications (cold tablets, antihistamines and antidepressants)

• Working more than 60 hours a week or working more than one job

• Drinking even small amounts of alcohol

William Shaw is publisher of the Snoqualmie Valley Record. E-mail him at wshaw@valleyrecord.com.