The dangers of driving while drowsy | Guest column


Seven years ago, I sped across the I-90 Bridge to Harborview Medical Center. As I did, I begged for God to take my life, "Take me instead. Not her!"

Just 15 minutes before my drive across the bridge, my wife Mary Beth and I had received the phone call that every parent dreads. Our 17-year-old daughter Mora was in E.R. at Harborview. All we knew was that she had been in a terrible car accident and that her condition was critical. Like any parent, I bargained and begged aloud for God to spare the life of my child.

Since then, I've told our story about drowsy driving — over and over again. And I will continue to do so until people take drowsy driving more seriously. That frantic trip across I-90 was just one of the moments from that harrowing time that is seared in to my psyche. There are other memories of terrible moments like that stay with me and continue to push my family and me to carry on in our mission to talk about the dangers of drowsy driving:

— The sadness in the doctor's eyes three days later as she took my wife and I over to a private corner after the morning consult was over. She told us that the trauma team was very disheartened. After being in a coma for three days, Mora's brain was not showing any signs of response, and they were losing hope of her recovery or survival.

— The devastation in my wife's eyes as we approached our family in the Trauma ICU waiting room. When we said it looked like Mora would not make it, our family closed around us in an elemental circle of love and shared anguish. Defiantly, my mother said, "Well, we'll just have to pray even harder!"

— The disbelief and anger we felt when we were told by the Washington State Patrol trooper that the driver of the car Mora was a passenger in had been awake for more than 20 hours before she got behind the wheel. That she fell asleep while driving over Blewett Pass.

— Or Mora's first words over a month later, whispered in pain and agony, trapped in a full body cast and an injured brain: "I hate this.” Or six months later, when she was an 18-year-old woman, when she took her first baby step without a wheelchair, crutches, or a scooter, knowing she would need multiple surgeries on her ankle for years to come.

We cannot give Mora back the years that were taken away from her, or the pain that she continues to deal with. But we can try to spare others from suffering terrible, life-changing injuries like hers. And to prevent easily avoidable deaths from drowsy driving.

Half of our mission is to promote drowsy driving awareness and prevention through education. In print, online, and on television, we have warned about the dangers of drowsy driving. We have shouted about it from the rooftops, and in our state Legislature's House Judiciary Committee. But prevention and education go only half way. For as with drunken driving 40 years ago and wearing seatbelts 20 years ago, perceptions about laws and penalties against drowsy driving need to be changed.

If a person that has not slept for 20-24 hours gets behind the wheel of a car and causes an injury or death, there should be serious consequences to their actions — and added teeth to the current reckless driving laws. Before others are injured or killed by drowsy drivers, we urge our legislators to seriously look at tougher penalties and fines if a driver causes injury or death after falling asleep while behind the wheel of a car.

Mora has miraculously defied all the medical odds and is living her amazing life. But others have not been so lucky. If one person getting behind the wheel of a car thought first and took a nap, Mora's life and many others like her would have been different. Others' lives would have been saved.

Seven years later, as our governor proclaims Nov. 11-17 Washington State Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, the Shaw family will continue to make noise about drowsy driving and its consequences.

And we will never forget.

— William Shaw is regional publisher of the Bellevue Reporter, Issaquah-Sammamish Reporter, Mercer Island Reporter and Snoqualmie Valley Record.



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