My husband (and anyone else I drive with) says I’m borderline hysterical when I sit in the front passenger seat. Perhaps this is due to the fact that as a resident I worked in the emergency room and treated victims of road injuries, or because I now listen to the horror stories related to me by many of my patients as they hobble into my office weeks, months or years after back, neck or even internal injuries from road accidents. And then there was that time I managed to crack the front window of our Beetle when I was in high school after a 5-car pile up on the New Jersey turnpike. (The subsequent financial settlement did pay for a year of my college education and I had no on-going head problems, at least as far as I know, but there are those who would argue this conclusion…)
So it was with some degree of self-vindication that I read The Lancet journal editorial titled “Reducing Road Dangers”. The author reported that next week the first Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020, established by the UN General Assembly, will be launched. And a global plan has been issued by the World Health Organization to provide a framework for this worldwide action. What struck me the most in this editorial (perhaps the use of the word “struck” is unfortunate) were the statistics that were presented. I would like to share them with you…
3000 people die each DAY in accidents on the roads worldwide! In case that number doesn’t say enough, that’s nearly 1.3 million people a year. And in addition 20-50 million people are injured each year, many of whom will then have lifelong disabilities. As more and more cars fill the roads throughout the world (personally, I am just envisioning the 405 Freeway in LA), road-traffic deaths are predicted to be the fifth leading cause of death by 2030. In case you are wondering what the first 4 will be; they are heart attack, stoke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and respiratory infections. This 5th ranking will have “progressed” since 2004 when it was a still an inexcusable 9th. And although this number is horrific, it doesn’t even take into account the effects of air pollution and climate change from motor vehicles or the impact that driving everywhere (instead of foot propelled ambulation) has on our epidemic of obesity.
Usually I write newsletters that give you information that you can use to improve your health or the health of others. This time, I guess, this is more of an address to public policy and the need to maintain and improve our infrastructure. I am not suggesting you trade in your car for a bicycle. But I do want to relate the 5 pillars of action outlined in the global plan, just so you are aware that they exist. They are certainly topics for dinner (or driving) conversation… (1) Developing national road-safety strategies and funding for their implementation and monitoring. (2) Improving safety of roads for everyone (this includes motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists). (3) Improving vehicle safety. (4) Changing road users’ behaviors through education and enforcement (this means seat belts, speed restrictions, no cell phone or texting distractions, helmets for motorcyclists and tackling road rage) and (5) Improving emergency medical response to crashes.
What each of us can do is to slow down and pay attention to the road while driving. This means we should try not to drive when we are sleep deprived. (Fatigue and diminished concentration is a real problem…more than 37% of the population gets less than 7 hours of sleep and a recent survey of drivers in 12 states in the U.S. found that a sixth of all drivers have reported nodding off at some point while driving!) We all know that drivers and passengers should use seat belts, and certainly wear helmets when on motorcycles and bicycles, but that admonition is not mandated in every state and certainly not in most countries.
Finally, we should support initiatives to improve road safety in our community, state and country. (And if necessary, we have to be willing to pay the taxes to do this.) And perhaps it would be helpful to listen to the directions and concerns of front seat passengers.