Drivers, take note: It's trauma season
June 9, 2012
by Brian Freskos
Knight Ridder/McClatchy in the Wilmington (NC) Star-News
One topic that arises with increasing frequency in conversations about traffic safety these days is distracted driving – a running phenomenon that claims thousands of lives nationwide every year.
The issue still encompasses drivers using the rearview mirror to apply makeup or fiddle with the radio as they accelerate down the highway. But it assumed added prominence with the proliferation of cell phones and research emphasizing the dangers of using them behind the wheel. And with the summer fun season upon us, the push to keep drivers' eyes on the road is again at the forefront.
"The number of accidents we see on a routine basis now that are related to texting and driving is phenomenal," Bret Nicks, an assistant professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and a fellow at the American College of Emergency Physicians, said by phone Wednesday. "It definitely plays into it."
North Carolina restricts cell phone use for novice drivers and bans text messaging for all. But officials say the text-messaging portion is particularly challenging to enforce, leading some to question how effective that prohibition has been.
A recent report from the advocacy organization Trust for America's Health contends such bans may yield unintended effects by encouraging drivers to hide their phones while they text, which actually increases distraction.
During the summer months, visits to the emergency room spike as travelers take to the road, revelers spend more time engaged in recreational activities and spirited teenagers look to celebrate a time away from school. For doctors, the upswing is so pronounced they term these months "trauma season."
Thomas Clancy, medical director of trauma services at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, said a leading cause of trauma is motor vehicle crashes, and distracted driving plays a big role in that.
"Everyone can tell you a story about the person on a cell phone who nearly ran them over," he said. "It's an interesting modern-day problem. That's where technology seems to have some drawbacks relative to public safety."
Though it is difficult to tell how many crashes occur from cell phone use, medical professionals say distracted driving is a common reason patients wind up in the emergency room. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls it an "epidemic," estimating that it killed 3,000 people in 2010. The administration, however, also acknowledged that because distracted driving is difficult to track, the actual death toll could be higher.
Crashes on North Carolina highways occur most frequently during the winter, but fatalities happen most often in the warmer months, according to data available from the University of N.C. Highway Safety Research Center.
Summer is a particularly troublesome season for teenage drivers. A AAA analysis of fatalities from 2005 to 2009 found an average of 422 teenagers died in each June, July and August, whereas 363 died on average during non-summer months.
While acknowledging the difficulties surrounding enforcement of North Carolina's text-messaging ban, 1st Sgt. Troy Pope, a state highway patrolman stationed in Wilmington, said he supports it as a way to hold the death toll down.
"It's a very dangerous habit," he said. "If you need to make a phone call or you need to text, pull off on the side of the road, pull into a parking lot."
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