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Pinellas County
Legislation targets drowsy driving
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Photo by ALEXANDRA CALDWELL
Lucressie Dugans McGriff speaks at a press conference at Morton Plant Mease about Drowsy Driving Prevention Week on Sept. 2. McGriff is the aunt of Ronshay Dugans. Florida State Representative Alan Williams, District 8, left, spearheaded getting this new legislation passed in the last legislative session.
CLEARWATER – Ronshay Dugans, 8, waited in the car for her school bus with her aunt, Josie West, who raised her.

“You know what mama? You know, I’m special,” Ronshay said.

“Yeah? And why do you think you’re special?” West asked.

“Because God don’t make no junk,” Ronshay said.

That’s the last thing West and the rest of Ronshay’s family remembers that she said. While traveling on her after school bus to the Boys and Girls Club in Tallahassee on Sept. 5, 2008, a cement truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the bus, killing Ronshay.

Since that time, Ronshay’s family worked with their Florida state representative, Alan Williams of District 8, to pass the Ronshay Dugans Act, which designates the first week of September as Drowsy Driving Prevention Week. The Florida legislature passed the bill as part of a larger transportation bill in April of this year, and Gov. Charlie Crist signed it into law on June 21.

To kick off the first Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, Morton Plant Mease Hospital in Clearwater partnered with the Florida Department of Transportation and Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and held a press conference Sept. 2 to highlight the dangers of drowsy driving.

“In a busy, 24/7 society, sleep can be expensive,” said Russell Rosenberg, vice chair of the National Sleep Foundation. “Not sleeping is even more expensive, when you consider the number of accidents on our roads due to drowsy drivers, resulting in deaths of loved ones like Ronshay Dugans. Drowsy driving is a major public health problem that can be prevented.

Even though most people agree that drowsy driving is dangerous, the statistics are staggering.”

Each year the National Sleep Foundation does a sleep survey, and it found that more than half of adults report that they have driven drowsy in the past year, with nearly a third of drivers reporting that they do so once a month or more, Rosenberg said. Furthermore, three in 10 people say they have nodded off or fallen asleep while driving, and 1 percent have had an accident or near accident because of drowsy driving in the past year.

Rosenberg added that one in 10 women ages 18 to 64 have driven drowsy with a child in the car. Even if a person falls asleep for only a second while driving, that is a big deal, he said. If a driver is traveling at 60 miles an hour and falls asleep for a second, the car will travel 88 feet or about 6 3/4 car lengths while the driver is unconscious.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, police report about 100,000 crashes a year are due to driver fatigue, resulting in about 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses.

Lisa Whims-Squires, medical director of Morton Plant Mease Sleep Disorder Centers, said sleep deprivation has become the norm, which creates dangerous conditions.

“Unfortunately, because people are so used to being sleepy, they don’t consider that an impairment,” Whims-Squires said. “I see people in the office and all the time I’m hearing people who think an adequate amount of sleep is six hours a night. Well, if you look at the normal requirements for adults, it’s somewhere in the eight to eight and a half hour range. ... So most people, they’re sleeping six hours a night and even if they have normal sleep, they’re impaired.”

Often people don’t even realize they are tired until the down times during the day – sitting at a desk, reading a book, or driving, she said.

“People do things to try to keep themselves vigilant while they’re driving like putting down the windows, turning on the music, maybe grab some caffeine,” Whims-Squires said. “Caffeine temporarily will help you, but unfortunately it’s very short-lived. The rest of the things people have used have really not panned out as keeping people awake.”

If people are getting their eight hours of sleep and still experience daytime drowsiness, they are encouraged to see a sleep specialist to see if there is a deeper problem, she said.

Whims-Squires recommends that before a long drive, get plenty of sleep beforehand and stop to stretch every few hours. People ages 18 to 24 are especially risky, she said, not only because they’re statistically more likely to have car crashes as it is, but also because their schedules often include late nights and fewer hours of sleep.

Shift workers are the other highest risk group for accidents due to drowsy driving.

“Shift workers are a big problem that I see in the office as far as their daytime sleepiness,” Whims-Squires said. “Because they tend to average a little over six hours (of sleep a night,) they’re about an hour and a half shorter than most workers as far as the amount of sleep they get. So these people are extremely likely to fall asleep at the wheel, so if I know that they have to work a distance, things like that, I try to see what we can do to rearrange their schedule to get them extra sleep. Most of us aren’t big nap people in the sleep community – we’d rather they get consolidated sleep, but sometimes that’s what you’re forced with shift workers. And even then, there’s medication approved for shift workers to help with vigilance if it’s a matter of safety.”

Rep. Williams was campaigning in September 2008 when the crash that killed Ronshay occurred in his district.

“I saw the loss that the Dugans West family had, and I didn’t want it to happen again,” Williams said. “And I didn’t want it to happen not only in my district, but also in the state of Florida. So that was the main drive behind this. I saw pictures of Ronshay and saw that big, bright smile and I didn’t want to lose another child or individual to drowsy driving.”

Williams proposed the legislation first in 2009, and it passed both the House and the Senate but due to a technicality, it had to go back again to the House, but they ran out of time in the session.

“We only get six bill slots as state representatives,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Until I am no longer a member of the House, this will always be a bill slot until we get it passed.’”

Williams wanted to establish the awareness week so groups across the state could organize all at once to bring awareness about this danger to the public. He brought it back again in the 2010 session, and this time it passed successfully.

“This time it sailed through the House so fast they couldn’t catch it,” said Lucressie Dugans McGriff, Ronshay’s aunt. “And the next thing we knew, the governor was signing it.”

Ronshay was a happy child who was bright, vibrant, loving and a big helper, McGriff said. Her uncle Perry, whom she lived with, is a minister, and Ronshay loved going to church, McGriff said. She would lay hands and pray for people when they were sick. Ronshay also loved the Boys and Girls Club, where she was heading when she died, and her favorite activity there was dancing – particularly hip hop. After her death, the Boys and Girls Club named one of the dance rooms after her.

In just eight years of life, Ronshay touched many lives, with 1,000 people attending her funeral. Her family wanted to touch even more lives with her story.

“Our family, even though we suffered a tragic loss, it ended up being a blessing in disguise because if it had not happened, we would not be able to educate people on the dangers of driving while drowsy,” McGriff said. “And we know that the truck driver did not intentionally kill her. We know that there is a problem amongst many, many drivers who drive without getting the proper hours of sleep. This caused us to help with awareness, so we’ve been on this campaign since it happened.”

Sept. 5, marked the two-year anniversary of Ronshay’s death. It also marked the first day of the first Drowsy Driving Prevention Week – a campaign that will hopefully prevent more deaths like Ronshay’s.
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