Legislation for drowsy driving in the works, accident teaches a tough lesson

Exactly two years ago, Mora Shaw died.

Today, she is a cheerful 20-year-old ready to start her second year of college at Western Washington University — and, to her family, a miracle — although she blushes to hear that description.

On July 18, 2006, Mora was in a car crash caused by a drowsy driver.

Early that morning, one of Mora’s best friends, Laura Marks, woke up Mora and another friend, and the three piled into Marks’ Nissan Pathfinder in Pateros, Wash., to head back home to Issaquah. Mora and her friend quickly returned to sleeping while Marks drove. What Mora did not know was that Marks had not gone to sleep the night before, and, in fact, had not slept in about 24 hours. The last thing Mora remembers before the crash is going to sleep the night before.

Marks told investigators that she pulled over several times on the drive back across Blewett Pass to rest, but didn’t wake the passengers in her car. Just south of Blewett Pass on Highway 97, she fell asleep at the wheel and crashed the vehicle into a tree.

In the front passenger seat, Mora’s body took the brunt of the crash.

While the driver and other passenger sustained minor injuries, Mora was so severely injured that she actually died at the scene and self-resuscitated a minute later. Her heart stopped once on the helicopter and again after reaching Harborview Medical Center, but she was brought back by medical personnel both times.

She was in a coma for two weeks and awoke in a full body cast. She then spent another two weeks in the Trauma Center before being moved to Providence Marianwood for 10 weeks and then back to Harborview for a few more weeks.

“She had to re-learn everything,” said Mora’s mother, Mary Beth Shaw. “Her right side was unusable for two months.”

On Oct. 25, three months after her accident, Mora went home to begin outpatient rehab.

Despite the many visitors and help from family and friends, the process was a long and sometimes isolated battle for Mora.

“A lot of people were still stuck in that high school mindstate,” Mora said. “Then when the craziness ended, it was a really lonely experience. You found out who you can really count on. ... You want to hide away, but it gets so lonely.”

Drowsy driving

Mora’s case is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of crashes worldwide are caused by sleepy drivers each year. Just two weeks ago a driver in Tehran, Iran, fell asleep at the wheel and drove a bus off a bridge, killing 25 people.

A few days before, on June 27, in El Dorado, Ark., the driver of a private security car for the U.S. Extradition Service Inc. dozed off and two inmates were killed in the crash.

The National Highway Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the result of driver fatigue each year. These crashes result in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in losses per year.

In a Sleep in America poll conducted in 2005 by the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of adult drivers, or about 168 million adults, said they have driven while feeling drowsy. Thirty-seven percent, or 103 million, said they have actually fallen asleep at the wheel.

These numbers are just estimates as there is no way to truly measure how many people drive on too little sleep.

Police do look for certain warning signs when investigating accident scenes. The accidents usually involve one vehicle. Injuries tend to be serious or fatal, and there are often no skid marks.

All of those indicators fit the accident that Mora Shaw was injured in. The Nissan was traveling at an estimated 60 miles per hour when it hit the tree, and there were no brake marks.

Researchers in Australia have shown that being awake for 18 hours produces the same impairment as a blood alcohol content of .05. After 24 hours awake — as was the case with the driver in this crash — it rises to the equivalent of .10 BAC.

“Drowsy driving is more dangerous than drunk driving,” Mary Beth said. “At least you’re awake and can react. [When you’re] drowsy driving, you are asleep and basically driving a weapon.”

After two years, Mora seems at peace with the fact that the past can’t be changed. But she and her parents are urging drivers to learn from everything they have been through so that no other innocent family has to suffer this way.

“I don’t mind if you make bad decisions, but I am paying for it,” Mora said. “If your choices are going to affect others, think about it more.”

The long journey back

It has been a long two years for the Shaws. And although on the outside Mora appears to be a healthy, active college student, she is still not fully recovered.

Last fall, Mora started at Western, the school she had planned on attending before the crash. A year late, Mora now attends part-time under the Student With Disabilities Program. Her goal is to one day be a nurse. However, due to the brain injury she suffered during the crash, she can’t take any science or math classes. Her brain just isn’t quite ready to work that way yet. After classes, she often goes back to her room to take a nap because one of the complications of brain injuries is fragmented sleep.

In addition to her brain injuries, which give her a constant headache or a buzzing in her head, Mora’s ankle is still shattered, causing her to walk across campus a little slower than her college compadres. The doctor has recommended that Mora have her foot amputated because a prosthetic would give her more movement, but Mora says she holds out hope that one day medical science will find a way to give her back mobility without the loss of her foot.

Mora still undergoes therapy. She can’t take on a summer job this year because her schedule is too full with cognitive therapy and therapy for her back. During the school year, she does yoga to help her back.

Working for change

Mora’s parents have undertaken another challenge, trying to change the laws and public attitudes about drowsy driving.

“We can’t change what happened, but we can see what we can do to prevent it,” Bill said.

Currently, only New Jersey has a law against drowsy driving, Maggie’s Law, which was passed in 2003. Maggie’s Law makes it a criminal offense to knowingly drive a vehicle while impaired by lack of sleep.

This year nationwide, 17 bills were proposed in nine states regarding drowsy driving, including making deaths caused by drowsy driving a reckless homicide, misdemeanors for drowsy driving, higher penalties and record keeping.

The Shaws also want education to be part of any legislation passed here — education for both the public and for police.

“It’s going to take a lot of work. ... We’re not going to sit quietly,” Mary Beth said. “We’re going to make polite noise.”

“We’re focusing on the issue, drawing awareness that this can happen to anyone,” Bill added.

During the next few weeks, the Shaws will meet with several legislators to encourage them to sponsor a bill in Olympia.

They know it likely won’t happen quickly, and they are ready to stick with the process in the coming months and years.

But, for today, they are simply celebrating the anniversary of the day their daughter lived.

Editor’s note: Bill Shaw is the Marketing Director for Reporter Newspapers, the group that includes the Mercer Island Reporter.

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