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Injuries from traffic accidents exact huge cost on economy, CDC study finds

REUTERS/Tom Mihalek
Two and a half million people were treated in a hospital emergency room in 2012 — and almost 200,000 of them were subsequently hospitalized — for injuries suffered in a motor vehicle crash.

Almost 23,000 people  — 63 people each day — lost their lives in the United States while riding in motor vehicles in 2012. That’s a stunning and tragic statistic.

Yet that number doesn’t tell the complete story of the impact that these crashes have on individuals, families, employers and society. For even when people survive a motor-vehicle crash, they often suffer injuries such as paralysis or brain damage that may alter their lives forever.

In its latest Vital Signs report, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated the health burden and the medical and work-loss costs of nonfatal motor vehicle crash injuries. They focused on 2012, the latest year for which complete crash-related hospital and other data are available.

The researchers found that for every person who was killed that year in a motor vehicle crash, eight others were hospitalized and 100 were treated and released from a hospital emergency room (ER).

In absolute numbers, that means that 2.5 million people were treated in a hospital emergency room in 2012 — and almost 200,000 of them were subsequently hospitalized — for injuries suffered in a motor vehicle crash.

Exacting a huge cost

The economic burden of those injuries was substantial. The CDC researchers estimate that the lifetime medical costs related to motor vehicle injuries in 2012 was more than $18 billion — $8 billion for those who were treated in the ER and $10 billion for those who were hospitalized.

In addition, the work lost over a lifetime due to those 2012 crash injuries was estimated at about $33 billion.

“In 2012, nearly 7,000 people went to the emergency department every day due to car crash injuries,” said CDC Principal Deputy Director Ileana Arias in a statement released with the report. “Motor vehicle crash injuries occur all too frequently and have health and economic costs for individuals, the health care system, and society. We need to do more to keep people safe and reduce crash injuries and medical costs.”

Additional findings

Here are some other findings from the study:

  • About 1 million, or 38 percent, of the motor vehicle crash injuries in 2012 involved teens and young adults aged 15 to 29, making them the age group at greatest risk.
  • Elderly people had the highest hospitalization rates, however. One-third of people over the age of 80 who were involved in a car crash in 2012 were hospitalized for their injuries.
  • Americans spent about 1 million days in the hospital in 2012 due to injuries sustained in a motor vehicle crash.
  • More than 75 percent of the crash-related medical costs occurred during the first 18 months after the crash.

There is some good news in the study. About 400,000 fewer people went to the ER and about 5,700 fewer people were hospitalized for car crash injuries in 2012 than in 2002.

As a result, motor vehicle crashes cost $1.7 billion less in lifetime medical expenses and $2.3 billion less in lifetime work losses in 2012 than they did a decade earlier.

Need for more interventions

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Motor vehicle crashes and related injuries are, of course, largely preventable. “Although much has been done to help keep people safe on the road, no state has fully implemented all the interventions proven to increase the use of car seats, booster seats, and seat belts; reduce drinking and driving; and improve teen driver safety,” said Gwen Bergen, a behavioral scientists with the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in the released statement.

The CDC report notes that 54,000 serious injuries could be prevented each year if everybody wore seat belts, and 82,000 additional serious injuries could be prevented if all drivers had a blood alcohol level of less than .08 percent.

Minnesota used as positive example

As an example of how state efforts can be effective, the report points to Minnesota’s 2009 primary seat belt law, which allows law enforcement officials to ticket a driver solely for not wearing a seat belt. Within the first two years of enforcement, that law saved Minnesota $36 million in crash-related hospital costs.

It also resulted in 752 fewer severe and moderate injuries. And it saved 68 lives.

The CDC report was published Tuesday in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), and can be read in full through the agency’s website.

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