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Fall 2010 | Vol. 12 | No. 5

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Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention: A Winnable Battle

By Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH

Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Motor vehicle crashes affect all Americans. Each year, traffic crashes kill nearly 40,000 people and injure another four million severely enough to require emergency medical care. While we have made some progress in recent years in decreasing motor vehicle-related injuries and deaths, we can do better. In this article, I outline why I believe reducing injury and death from motor vehicle crashes is a “winnable battle.”

When I returned to the CDC in June 2009, I set out to identify areas in public health where we can make a large and immediate difference. I call these “winnable battles.” These public health challenges are not easy, or they would not be battles. And yet, they are also not hopeless because they are winnable.

A winnable battle needs to meet three criteria:

  1. It must be a leading cause of illness, injury, disability, and death:
  2. Evidence-based, scalable interventions must already exist and be able to be broadly implemented now; and
  3. With focused effort, we must have the ability to achieve dramatic results within one to four years.

I identified six winnable battles: tobacco control; improving nutrition, physical activity, and food safety; reducing healthcare-associated infections; preventing motor vehicle injuries; teen pregnancy prevention; and HIV prevention. We are marshalling resources throughout CDC to address these priorities in a more focused way to better prevent illness and save lives.

There are at least four effective ways we can greatly reduce the number of motor vehicle crashes, and in turn, the injuries and deaths they cause. These include:

SEAT BELTS: Universal use of seat belts is one of our best strategies. Each year, seat belts save about 15,000 lives in the United States. Implementing primary seat belt laws has proven effective in encouraging more people to wear them. If everyone had worn a seat belt on every trip in 2008–passengers as well as drivers–more than 3,500 lives would have been saved and nearly 50,000 serious injuries would have been prevented in that year alone.

TEENS: Car crashes kill more teens than any other cause. Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) systems help new drivers gain critical driving skills under low-risk conditions. If every state had a strong GDL policy, about 350,000 people would avoid serious injury each year.

ALCOHOL: Every 45 minutes in the U.S., someone dies in a motor vehicle crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver. Sobriety checkpoints and ignition interlocks for DUI offenders can help reduce these deaths. If all drivers on the road had a BAC less than 0.08, an estimated 8,000 lives per year would be saved.

DISTRACTION: Each day, an estimated 16 people are killed and more than 1,300 people are injured in crashes involving a distracted driver. Enacting laws–such as banning texting while driving–can help raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, and may help prevent it.

My designation of motor vehicle injury prevention as a winnable battle complements activities outlined in Toward Zero Deaths: A National Strategy on Highway Safety. Both are aimed at enhancing national, state, and local safety policy and practice. For years, the CDC has worked closely with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and key partners including GHSA.

More than ever, we are committed to strengthening ties to the transportation safety community and improving linkages to state, local, and tribal public health departments. To this end, I met recently with NHTSA Administrator David Strickland to discuss how we can work together more closely to pursue the interventions outlined above.

At CDC, we are in the business of saving lives and promoting health. We are committed to keeping people safe on the road every day and helping them live to their full potential. CDC is redoubling our efforts and doing our part to address this winnable battle.