N.C. crash turns 50,000 spuds into mashed potatoes

A large truck carrying 50,000 pounds of potatoes crashed in North Carolina early Friday morning because the driver fell asleep at the wheel.

Scott Anderson/La Salle News Tribune/AP/File
A firefighter pulled a tarp through a pile of potatoes that spilled from a semi truck following a highway accident near La Salle, Ill., in 2007. A similar spillage happened in North Carolina Friday morning when the driver of a tractor-trailer loaded with potatoes fell asleep at the wheel and lost control of the truck. The driver was not harmed.

Some 50,000 pounds of potatoes spilled across the North Carolina roadway on I-77 after the driver of a big rig fell asleep driving and crashed.

Several drivers behind the truck rushed to aid the driver of the tractor-trailer, which crashed against the guardrail around 2 a.m. Friday with such force the engine flew out of the truck, Gina Esposito reported for WSOC-TV. The driver was rushed to Carolinas Medical Center but is expected to fully recover.

"Maybe he fell sleep, and sadly hit the guard rail," Garrett Bonacci, one of the rescuers, told the local news station. "Thank the Lord he's all right."

Officials hoped to remove the damaged truck and its spud load before rush hour, but eventually determined the potato pick-up would last until at least noon.

Although drowsy driving generally makes news only for these dramatic accidents, such as when potatoes hit the road, 88 percent of police officers have stopped what they thought was a drunk driver who turned out to be sleepy, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. A similar share of police say drowsy driving is just as serious as drunk driving and deserves far more attention than it receives.

Although drowsy driving is difficult to track nationally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 83,000 crashes due to drivers' drowsiness occurred each year, on average, between 2005 and 2009. Young men and night shift workers are among those most at risk, according to NHTSA. 

In Britain, which keeps more detailed crash records than the United States, drowsy driving causes 15 percent of roadway crashes, according to the National Sleep Foundation, according to AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Since studies from Stanford suggest Americans sleep less than Europeans – and feel more tired as a result – the US percentage is likely higher.

"The number of individuals sleepy or drowsy during situations where they should be alert is disturbing," Dr. Maurice Ohayon, psychiatry professor at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Sleep Epidemiology Research Center, told LiveScience at the time. "Sleepiness is underestimated in its daily life consequences for the general population, for the shift workers and for the people reducing their amount of sleep for any kind of good reasons. It is always a mistake to curtail your sleep."

As many as 1 in 25 Americans admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel in the past month. The Center for Disease Control recommends that drivers who notice themselves drifting across lanes, blinking or yawning frequently, or simply not remembering their most recent miles driven pull over for a short nap or, if possible, switch drivers.

The most important preventative step, though, is a good night's sleep before driving. During a study of Americans who crashed because of drowsy driving, the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center looked for a relationship between sleep patterns and the proceeding crash. One-quarter of the drivers who fell asleep at the wheel had fewer than six hours of sleep, as had more than one third of those whose crash was blamed on fatigue. Researchers concluded that those who slept 7 hours increased their chances of a crash by 1.2 times, compared to those who got a full 8 hours or more, and sleeping 6 to 7 hours almost doubled the chances of a crash.

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