FEWER TEENAGERS DIE IN CAR CRASHES: A SMALL PUBLIC HEALTH VICTORY
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has analyzed the number of fatal car crashes with teens behind the wheel. Over the last five years the number of deaths involving such accidents dropped about a third, from around 2,200 in 2004 to 1,400 in 2008.
The leading explanations for why this improved death rate has occurred point to changes in policies affecting youth drivers, such as the graduated driving license. In forty-nine of the fifty states teenagers gradually gain full privileges behind the wheel. Younger drivers experience restrictions about having additional passengers, having young people in the car and driving at night. The combination of these restrictions is thought to be a primary factor explaining why less traffic deaths are occurring with teen drivers.
Teen drivers still markedly increase the risks of accidents, averaging about four times as many crashes as adult drivers per number of miles driven.
The reason I found this information so noteworthy is that it serves as an example of a rare victory by the forces of public health in actually reducing deaths in an important area of health for young people. I can’t help but think if there are some lessons we could draw to find policy solutions to make a dent in the much greater health problem for youth: childhood obesity.
Public health solutions arise somewhat more naturally when an acknowledged regulatory function such as driver’s licensure comes into play. Driving a car is an area everyone would agree deserves some government scrutiny and is a public privilege. Obesity and the personal choices of diet and exercise are just that: personal. They are the governance of families and not governments.
Even things like breaks on school tuition, use of state scholarship funds and lots of other financial incentives for young people could be implemented, but these might also be considered discriminatory against overweight or obese people if viewed as penalties against weight gain.
Just how far the public would permit the government to reach in to individual lives and families to correct the obesity epidemic remains very unclear.
Certainly the severity and deadliness of the epidemic warrants some unconventional thinking about how to tackle the problem. But in this most personal of health problems, finding the right answer to help us save children from early death and disease while balancing the respect for personal freedoms and family responsibilities will remain a great challenge.