SOUTH BEND - The scenario is more common than you think:
You’ve been motoring down the road for far too long and everything - the barns, cows, McDonald’s signs - is beginning to look the same.
It’s dark outside, and your eyes begin to get a little heavy.
Not even the Mountain Dew or the AC/DC are keeping you awake anymore.
Before you know it, your eyes close and you’re driving 60 mph down the highway - asleep.
Police say falling asleep behind the wheel can happen to anyone by pushing it too long on the road without enough sleep, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Drowsy driving is a big enough concern, an entire week has been dedicated to it - Drowsy Driving Prevention Week - which begins today and runs until Saturday.
“People should use common sense if they’re feeling tired,” said Sgt. Bill Redman, St. Joseph County police spokesman. “If you’re not feeling good enough to do normal activities, we suggest not getting behind the wheel of a car. You’re putting you and others at risk.”
According to numbers provided by the National Sleep Foundation, drowsiness impairs judgment performance and reaction times just like alcohol and drugs. People who have been awake for more than 20 hours have an impairment equal to that of a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent.
“That driving behavior mimics someone drinking and driving,” said Sgt. Trent Smith, an Indiana State Police spokesman. “You might be all over the roadway.”
It’s happening far more than people may think. Half of Americans have reported driving drowsy, and 20 percent admitted to actually falling asleep at the wheel in the past year, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
An estimated 100,000 police-reported crashes occur each year, caused primarily by drowsy driving. Of those crashes, more than 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in losses have been reported, according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Safety Administration.
Locally, over the past two years, there have been 157 crashes in St. Joseph County from a driver falling asleep at the wheel. Sixty-three of those resulted in injuries and 94 had property damage involved.
Elkhart County saw 175 such crashes, with 37 injuries and 138 property damage incidents. The entire state over that period had 4,631 crashes, resulting in 1,499 injuries and 27 fatalities.
Smith said crashes that occur simply because a driver has gone too many miles without enough sleep predominantly occur on highways such as the Indiana Toll Road.
“It seems like today everyone wants to get everywhere as quick as you can,” Smith said. “For long trips, you should get six to eight hours of sleep prior to leaving on the trip. During the trip, stop every two to three hours and stretch your legs. It refreshes you a little bit.”
Smith also recommended having a passenger in the car if possible and drinking caffeinated drinks to keep you alert.
“If you start to nod off, the best things to do is stop when you can and take a quick nap,” he said.
Crashes in more residential areas - including much of St. Joseph County - can be caused simply by being tired, but, because the trips are often shorter, drugs or alcohol are often factors.
“It happens,” said Capt. Phil Trent, South Bend police spokesman. “There’s certainly a direct correlation between alcohol use, not having enough sleep and driving around 3 or 4 o’clock (a.m.). The two things feed off each other.”
Work schedules also can play a role.
“A lot of times they are drunk, but sometimes they are simply tired,” Redman said. “Maybe they worked all night, possibly a night job.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, males ages 16 to 25 are more at risk than others of falling asleep at the wheel. Also more highly affected are people working night shifts, rotating shifts or double shifts.
People with untreated sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, business travelers suffering jet lag and commercial drivers who drive a high number of miles at night are all at risk of drowsy driving, the National Sleep Foundation reported.
Staff writer Tom Moor: