Watch your speed, wear a seat-belt and stay alive

It wasn’t until several years after starting my medical training that I began to think of driving as a health issue.

I was rotating on the surgical trauma team of a major metropolitan hospital. Each night on call there were a half-dozen trauma victims brought to the emergency room, at least three-fourths of whom were in motor-vehicle accidents.

According to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are more than 30,000 deaths annually in the United States from motor-vehicle accidents. There are more than 2.3 million more such accidents that result in injury, ranging from minor to severe.

What’s more, motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries do not follow the typical rules of epidemiology for major illness. Such injuries unduly affect the young and those who are otherwise healthy.

For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every hour, there are 150 children treated in an ER for motor vehicle-related injuries. Of note, teen drivers are more than three times more likely than experienced drivers to be involved in a fatal car crash.

What makes driving a health issue is not only the burden of death and injury related to motor-vehicle use, but also the fact that these consequences are mostly preventable.

I was reminded of the challenges we face in Southwest Colorado while assisting a friend recently who was involved in a motor-vehicle incident. An elk had dashed in front of her car. She was a quick thinker and stayed in her lane. Though sustaining considerable vehicle damage from the impact, she was thankfully not injured.

A friendly Colorado State Patrol officer completing the accident report related to me that injuries from such incidents are common, usually from drivers swerving either into oncoming traffic or off the roadway. In his 11 years’ experience, he said he had investigated more than 40 traffic deaths resulting from such action.

The patrolman’s advice to always stay in your lane and slow down as best as you can in such circumstances is advice my friend had already learned from a parent many years before and from which she benefitted this night.

These days, the traffic challenges are many. As I write this article, waves of moisture, in the form of much-needed snow, coat the roads. How many of us have checked our tires in advance for adequate wintertime tread? How many follow recommendations when driving in snow to slow down and leave adequate stopping distance from the vehicle ahead of us?

Impaired driving is unfortunately common. Driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or lack of sleep or distraction by cellphones and other devices claim many lives on the road each year. Driving under such circumstances should be avoided.

Technology has improved outcomes from traffic accidents. Anti-lock brake systems, airbags and control-assist software on modern vehicles give us an advantage. Yet the simplest safety equipment, including child car seats and seat belts, are too uncommonly used.

Before you head out onto the road this holiday season, take a moment to think about all the ways to prevent injury in your vehicle. It may save your life – or the life of someone else.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.