Tennessee is proud that in 1978, it became the first state in the country to pass a law making it mandatory for children to be restrained in a safety seat. The law was “just what the doctor ordered,” as it was Dr. Robert Sanders of Murfreesboro, Tennessee whose passionate advocacy for child safety that led the effort to protect children riding in automobiles. Studies reveal that child seats reduce the likelihood of an infant being killed in a vehicle crash by 71 percent and toddlers by 54 percent. This landmark law paved the way for the country, as every other state in the nation adopted this law within six years of it passing in Tennessee.
Still, doctors have reason to be concerned as the most recent CDC report reveals that not only do motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for persons aged 5-34 years old, but also racial/ethnic minorities are affected disproportionately. In 2007, approximately 44,000 persons were killed in motor vehicle crashes. Whereas crashes are the cause of death for <2% of blacks and whites, they account for 7% of deaths for American Indian deaths and 5% of Hispanic deaths.
Evidence-based strategies that reduce motor vehicle-related mortality include increased adoption of primary seat belt laws and legislation for ignition interlock devices. Also effective are programs that involve community mobilization with awareness efforts for responsible drinking habits. Strategies should tailor their tactics to the unique cultures of these populations in order to be effective.
Seat belt laws represent a powerful public health measure that save lives. The disparity in motor vehicle related deaths represent a disparity in health access. Robust advocacy efforts like the one championed by Dr. Sanders is the response that we need to the health disparities in motor vehicle accidents.
Health care is a cultural affair, and this is an example of where a change in behavioral norms will result in an improvement in health outcomes. Good medicine includes research on how we can influence behavior and improve the choices that different populations make, whether through laws or targeted educational campaigns. In Latin, doctor means “teacher.” Whether it be through washing hands, wearing seat belts, or faithfully receiving flu shots every season, doctors have the responsibility to teach and empower patients and society on improving their health.