Helping Build a Nation of Safe, Healthy Communities

By Dr. Mary Pat McKay

National Public health Week posterAs an Emergency Physician, it’s been my duty to break bad news to friends and family members who have raced to the emergency department after hearing that their loved one was in a motor vehicle crash. When I start speaking, their faces reflect a mix of hope and fear, but then grim, irrevocable grief dawns with the realization that their loved one died in the crash.

Although it was always there in the back of my mind, I left out the part where their loved one’s death was entirely preventable.

Today marks the start of Public Health Week, when the American Public Health Association brings together communities across the nation to recognize past public health contributions and to highlight present public health challenges.

There is no public health challenge more pressing than our nation’s epidemic of motor vehicle crash deaths. Public health is not only about disease outbreaks, contaminated drinking water, diet, exercise, or smoking cessation. It is also about preventing injuries and deaths in motor vehicle crashes, a leading cause of death for all Americans – and the leading cause of death for Americans from ages 5 to 24.

More than 30,000 of us die every year because of a motor vehicle crash.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2.5 million Americans went to the emergency department —and nearly 200,000 were then hospitalized—for crash injuries in 2012.

In addition to the human suffering associated with hospitalization, disability, and lost productivity, there is a significant economic impact. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the economic cost of crash deaths and injuries in 2010 was more than $240 billion.

The numbers are still being counted, but motor vehicle crashes – and the deaths and injuries resulting from them – are increasing, with an increase of more than 10 percent expected for 2015. That’s potentially 3,000 more unnecessary deaths. I think that’s unacceptable and it makes it even more critical to focus on using proven interventions.

The same public health perspective that can eliminate a disease can one day eliminate our epidemic of crash deaths. Just as the solution to preventing many communicable diseases is washing your hands, there are equally simple and easy ways that you can personally prevent the epidemic of motor vehicle crash deaths and injuries.

First, wear your seat belt. On every ride, in every vehicle, no matter where you are sitting.

Using a seat belt is the easiest and simplest way to help prevent deaths and injuries when crashes happen.

The next way you can personally prevent motor vehicle crash deaths and injuries is by preventing the accident itself. Every year, the NTSB issues its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. This year’s list features many of the behaviors that cause motor vehicle crashes—distraction, impairment, and fatigue – three behaviors you control.

Let me ask you a few questions. It’s all right, remember, I’m a doctor.

Have you ever fought sleep while behind the wheel of an automobile? How often have you gotten behind the wheel when you’ve been drinking? Do you take cell phone calls while driving? Do you know texting while driving is dangerous but do it anyway “because you’re so good at it”?

The fact is when you’re behind the wheel you need to be alert, awake, and attentive. Looking away for as little as two seconds puts you – and those around you – at risk of becoming a statistic.

Let me write you a few free prescriptions that just might save your life, or somebody else’s:

  • Don’t get behind the wheel if you’ve been drinking, no matter how much or how little.
  • When you’re driving, leave the phone alone, hands free calls included, and
  • No texting and driving. Ever. If you need to take or place a call, send a Tweet, reply to a text or check an email, pull over to a safe location, stop and park your vehicle, and then hammer out those 140 characters.

Advances in medicine have made diseases that killed millions a distant memory instead of a continuing reality. Treating the epidemic of crash related injuries and fatalities as the public health emergency that it is can help build a nation of safe, healthy communities. Take this doctor’s advice, and follow this prescription – the life you save may be your own.

Dr.Mary Pat McKay is the NTSB Chief Medical Officer.

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