Traffic Accidents Take Deadly Toll on Teens

Mar. 23 -- FRIDAY, April 20 (HealthDay News) -- A new report finds that, worldwide, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds.

According to an editorial in the April 21 issue of The Lancet, traffic accidents are also the second most likely cause of death for both 10- to 14-year-olds and 20- to 24-year-olds, and the number three killer of children ages 5 to 9 years.

"As infectious disease is decreasing, we are seeing more deaths from injury around the world, and motor vehicle crashes is one of the major causes," said Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of Injury Prevention and Research at Children's Memorial Hospital and medical director for Injury Free Coalition for Kids in Chicago.

Sheehan noted that, in the United States, the total number of deaths in road accidents has declined with the advent of seat belt laws, air bags and safer cars, better roads, and crackdowns on drunk driving.

But traffic accidents still affect teenagers more than other groups, Sheehan said. "It's the young new driver who is most at risk," she said. "These drivers are inexperienced. And the risk for an accident increases if there are a lot of kids in the car," she added.

The Lancet editorial cited data from next week's World Health Organization (WHO) Youth and Road Safety report.

According to the report, the problem is worse in poorer countries. In 2002, more than half of the 380,000 young people who died in traffic accidents were in Africa and Southeast Asia. The report estimated that 7,000 people under 25 will be killed in traffic accidents worldwide during the seven days that mark UN Global Road Safety Week, which begins April 23.

Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people of all ages are killed each year in traffic accidents, the WHO report found.

In the United States, two out of five deaths among U.S. teens come as the result of motor vehicle crashes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2002, more than 5,000 American teens ages 16 to 19 died of injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents.

In the United States, the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. In fact, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash, according to the CDC.

The same is true around the world, according to the editorial. "Most of the victims will be young men and boys. Men aged less than 25 years are nearly three times as likely as women of that age to be killed in a road-traffic accident."

This month has been no exception. In Induruwa, Sri Lanka, a truck and bus collision killed 23 people. During the first two days of the Thai New Year holiday, 98 Thais died in traffic accidents, and more than 1,300 were injured.

In addition to death and injury, traffic accidents in low-income and middle-income countries cost $65 billion to $100 billion annually. These costs include loss of income and the burden placed on families to care for their injured relative, the editorial noted.

Young male cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians in poorer countries are more at risk of death in traffic accidents, as the roads in these countries are not designed to allow people, bikes and cars to share space. In addition, protective or bright clothing is rarely worn in such countries, the editorial pointed out.

The young are also at risk from driving drunk, driving too fast and inexperience. Some deliberately take risks due to peer pressure. Better road planning, more cyclists wearing helmets, and tougher police enforcement against drinking and driving are among the measures that would reduce death and injury, the editorial noted.

"But the individual solution lies with what is perhaps one of the hardest things to change -- human behavior. Road accidents disproportionately affect young people. Being taught about road safety from a very young age must become a priority, with adults setting a good example at all times," the editorial concluded.

In addition, Sheehan believes initiatives such as graduated licensing programs -- where teen driving is restricted to certain times of the day and limit the number of other teens who can be in the car -- are good first steps to reducing the number of accidents.

Sheehan also recommends that parents establish driving rules with their teenagers. "You sit down with your teen driver and set out some rules, and both the parents and the teen agree to those rules," she said. "It's not that they shouldn't drive, but that they should drive safely."

More information

For more information on safe driving for teens, visit the National Safety Council.

SOURCES: Karen Sheehan, M.D., medical director, Injury Prevention and Research, Children's Memorial Hospital, and medical director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Chicago; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; April 21, 2007, The Lancet