It was dismissal time at Copper Beech Middle School in Abington Township, Pa. a few weeks ago when a car ran off Easton Road, jumped the curb and hit a school crossing guard.
The guard was thrown into another woman – both hit the ground, suffering injuries that required hospitalization. The 41-year-old driver, police say, had fallen asleep at the wheel. The man had apparently started a new shift at work and dozed off on the drive home.
"We kind of lucked out that day,” said Abington Township Police Traffic Safety Officer Al Freed. “On a normal day we would have a lot of children out on the sidewalk. But because it was raining a lot, many were waiting inside to be picked up by car.”
Two days before, in a different part of Abington Township, a 28-year-old man slammed into a parked car at 2:30 in the morning. Freed said that was also a case of falling asleep at the wheel. Freed says the department has increasingly seen incidents where drowsy or fatigued driving is a factor.
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“It is a problem and is actually, at times, more dangerous and impaired than drunk driving,” the officer said.
Over a five year period, from 2009 through 2013, Abington Township has seen a total of 13 drowsy driving crashes -- between two and three a year, according to the most recent data from PennDOT. Six of those cases involved injuries. Expanding out to the county level for the same period, an average of 94 drowsy driving crashes happened each year resulting in three fatalities and 244 injuries.
Regionally, the drowsy driving crash numbers are trending upwards year-over-year. According to PennDOT data, drowsy driving crashes jumped 23 percent from 2009 through 2013 in the five-county area: Montgomery, Bucks, Philadelphia, Delaware and Chester counties. There have been 1,729 such crashes over that time frame resulting in 8 deaths and more than 1,300 injuries.
Drivers stopped for drowsy driving can be cited for careless driving, resulting in a $127 fine and three points on their driving record, and worse – injury or death.
Freed said drivers need to be extra vigilant -- just as they are about not driving after drinking -- to not get behind the wheel if they are feeling drowsy.
"People need to take the proper precautions – whether that’s pulling over, getting coffee, opening the window for fresh air, or stopping the car and calling someone to pick you up," he said.