Traffic Safety Is Public Health

By Mary Pat McKay, M.D.

PublicHealthWeekAccording to the CDC Foundation, public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention, and detection and control of infectious diseases. As this week is National Public Health Week, I want to take a moment to highlight that injury prevention piece, specifically the importance of preventing traffic-related injuries and deaths.

This issue is near and dear to my heart, since as an Emergency Physician, all-too-often I’ve been the one to tell the family unbearable news about what happened to their loved one after an accident.

In 2012, 33,561 people died on American roadways. Compare that to the 481 people sickened (but none dead) from salmonella featured in a March 2014 Los Angeles Times article as well as other news affiliates. The nightly news often devotes coverage to the latest food recall, and rightly so. Traffic deaths, however, rarely receive national coverage and even local coverage fades far too quickly. Somehow, traffic deaths are less newsworthy than possibly contaminated food.

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month and Alcohol Awareness Month. Over the last decade, nearly as soon as smart phones and other portable electronic devices are developed, they show up behind the wheel. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2011, 17% of crashes serious enough to injure someone involved a distracted driver. And even though 42 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers, and nearly every state bans texting for novice drivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011, 31% of U.S. drivers ages 18-64 reported that they had read or sent text messages or email messages while driving at least once in the previous 30 days. Even worse, nearly half of all U.S. high school students aged 16 years or older text or email while driving. Legislation alone isn’t solving this epidemic.

And legislation hasn’t cured the epidemic of drunk driving, either. Although the proportion of fatal crashes involving alcohol has fallen from 53% in 1982, it has been stagnating at about a third for nearly two decades.

Distracted and impaired driving have more in common than the fact that they occur behind the wheel; they also involve insidious behaviors that require a cultural shift. It’s beginning to happen; drunk driving is no longer socially acceptable in most circles. But changing such behavior takes time. Fortunately, public health practitioners are in it for the long haul. Using evidence-based prevention strategies and engaging multiple stakeholders, public health can make a difference and save lives.

On April 9th, the American Public Health Association will host the fourth annual National Public Health Week Twitter Chat. I encourage you to participate and draw attention to what public health can do to prevent roadway crashes, injuries, and deaths. Even more, do something in April to commemorate the month: take the keys away from a friend who’s been drinking and put down that phone when you’re the one behind the wheel.

Dr. McKay is the NTSB’s Medical Officer.

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