Keep fighting drowsy driving | Our Corner with Bill Shaw

Bill Shaw, the author of this article, is the publisher of Sound Publishing newspapers in Bellevue, Issaquah-Sammamish, Mercer Island and Snoqualmie.

A recent Issaquah­-Sammamish Reporter’s “police blotter” noted that the Issaquah police responded to a report of a vehicle being driven erratically. An officer quickly found the car parked in a Safeway parking lot. The driver was fast asleep. When woken up and interviewed, the driver said 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 one day, 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 he had been up for more than 24 hours before he drove back over the 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 co­worker works a second job in addition to her “day job.” She mentioned that many times each week she gets only four hours of sleep each night. When she drives home from her “moonlighting” job at 2 or 3 in the morning, she is usually very tired. But she said “it is a straight line on the freeway” and she knows the way home ­even when exhausted.

In 2006, our then 17-year-old daughter Mora nearly died from multiple fractures and traumatic brain injury injuries caused by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel of a 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 they regularly work double shifts each week and drive 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 penalties, because they said care­givers were often the worst offenders.

Experts say that after 24 hours without sleep, a driver is as impaired as if he or she were over the legal limit for alcohol. Not only every driver in our state, but 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. Their 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 to really change 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.

We urge our legislators to put aside bickering of partisan politics and to beef up Washington’s reckless driving penalties if a driver injures or kills someone after deliberately getting behind the wheel of a car after being awake more than 20 hours. Or, like New Jersey’s “Maggie’s Law,” to find the vision and the guts to pass a specific drowsy driving law in Washington state.

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. Just ask the survivors. Ask the family and friends of those lost or injured last month or last year. Just ask our daughter.

Washington state’s Drowsy Driving Prevention Week was Nov. 2-­9. We urge all drivers to be aware of their level of fatigue or alertness before they get behind the wheel of a car, during the coming busy holiday season and throughout the year.