More than 2.5 million Americans — nearly 7,000 people per day — entered the emergency room with injuries from motor vehicle collisions in 2012, according to a new federal government report. Out of that group, nearly 200,000 had stints in the hospital because of the incidents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Vital Signs report, released earlier this week, also showed that lifetime medical expenses for the injuries totaled $18 million — most of which covered the cost of hospital admissions and treatment in emergency rooms. Teens, young adults, and people older than 80 accounted for the majority of the accidents.
“Motor vehicle crash injuries occur all too frequently and have health and economic costs for individuals, the health care system, and society,” Ileana Arias, CDC principal deputy director, said in an agency news release. “We need to do more to keep people safe and reduce crash injuries and medical costs.”
While lifetime medical costs for injuries from motor vehicle collisions dropped $1.7 billion between 2002 and 2012, traffic accidents still count as the primary cause of injury in the United States, according to the CDC. The outcome for all parties involved can be deadly. In 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported more than 33,000 deaths by motor vehicle collision. Experts say key causes include distracted driving, speeding, drunk and reckless driving, and running red lights and stop signs.
Recent research has also cited driver exhaustion as a key factor in motor vehicle collisions. In a 2013 report, researchers likened driving while sleepy — also known as “drowsy driving” — to drunk driving in the sense that it poses just as great a risk for injury and fatalities.
In June, the national conversation about driver exhaustion kicked into high gear when a Wal-Mart truck struck a limousine carrying comedian Tracy Morgan and other people. The accident critically injured Morgan and killed his friend and fellow comedian, James McNair. The driver of the truck — who drove 20 miles above the speed limit at the time — later admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel after being on the road for 24 consecutive hours.
While the deadly accident on the New Jersey Turnpike serves as one of the more extreme cases, sleep deprivation still takes a toll on public transit workers and truck drivers, many of whom travel long distances and travel through the night as part of their jobs.
In a 2012 National Sleep Foundation survey, one out of four drivers admitted that a lack of sleep weakened their job performance. Nearly 20 percent of train operators and 14 percent of truck drivers also recounted close calls they said stemmed from their fatigue. Experts say a “culture of exhaustion” pressures workers in these industries to pick up extra shifts, even though their bodies can no longer sustain the long hours.
Even with the advent of information available, threats to truck driver safety still exist. In June, a Senate panel approved an amendment that would nullify the federal rest requirements for truck drivers. Portions of the current law GOP lawmakers wanted to rescind include a requirement that drivers take breaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on consecutive nights before they can drive again. The amendment has faced opposition from the Obama administration and driver safety advocacy groups.
For teenagers and young adults, alcohol and drugs often play a role in motor vehicle collisions. According to the National Organization for Youth Safety, one out of three drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 who died in car crashes had blood alcohol content levels of .08 or higher. Even though teen drunk driving fatalities have dropped in recent decades, experts say there’s still cause for concern.
According to the CDC, one in ten young people drive while drunk. Today, the likelihood of death for teens who drive drunk is three times that of adults; due in part to their lack of experience behind the wheel, their inability to control their movements under the influence of alcohol, and a greater likelihood of distractions. The effects of drunk driving ripple beyond teen victims. Alcohol-related fatalities cost the United States more than $50 billion each year.
In response to this growing public health issue, some people want to strengthen rules for drinking and driving. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the federal government lower the legal limit for the amount of alcohol that drivers could have in their bloodstream, saying that the changes could save at least 500 lives per year.
Drugs, alcohol, and fatigue may not some of the only threats that drivers on the road face, however. In recent years, traffic accidents have increased in some states where fracking — the process of releasing natural gas by drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rock — has taken place. In May, the Associated Press found through its data analysis that the increase in traffic and drivers of heavy equipment has more than quadrupled motor vehicle collisions, even as the roads became safer in some cases.