Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that nearly 36% of Americans 20 years of age and older are obese. While the medical community continues to be concerned about the health concerns related to the high obesity rates (heart, diabetes, cancer), there is another danger that some may not think about. Several recent studies show that obese drivers face a higher risk of injury and death in a motor vehicle than those who are not obese.
Understanding Body Mass Index and how that affects fatality rates
To understand the reasons behind the higher injury and death rate for obese people, first it is necessary to understand what defines obesity. It is defined as anyone having a body mass index (BMI) over 30. Normal BMIs run between 18.5 and 25, while morbidly obese people have a BMI over 50.
Based on a study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley and the University of West Virginia in 2012, results show that those who are morbidly obese are 80% more likely to perish in a car crash than those with normal BMIs. For those with a BMI between 30 and 34.9, the risk of death was 21% greater. For those between 35 and 39.9, the risk was 51% greater.
For some reason, obese women are at most risk. The study showed that female drivers with a BMI of 35 to 39.9 had double the risk of dying in a car accident when compared to normal weight female drivers. Those female drivers with BMIs of over 40 were almost twice as likely as morbidly obese male drivers to be killed in a severe car crash.
What are the reasons behind the higher injury and death rate for obese people?
There are several reasons why there is a higher risk of injury or death for obese people, some functional and some medical.
Medical professionals point out that obese people often have health problems that affect how well they can recover from an accident. If they have heart issues, for example, they may be more likely to suffer a fatal heart attack in the aftermath of a severe car crash.
In addition, obese drivers with health issues can make them more dangerous on the roads. Obesity is the leading cause of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a disorder that interrupts sleep and can cause extreme daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Those with OSA are 50% more likely to be in a car crash, and 3-5 times more likely to be in a serious crash involving severe injuries.
Seat belt use:
Many obese people have problems with seat belts: they don’t wear them correctly, they can be ill-fitting, or they may not wear them at all. Seat belts are designed to fit snugly. They work best when resting close to the shoulder and pelvis bones, tight around the collarbone, and low across the hips.
Unfortunately, studies reveal that the more a person weighs, the less likely he or she is going to wear a seat belt.
According to Matthew Reed, director of UMTRI’s Human Motion Simulation Laboratory, obesity has a negative effect on seat belt fit.
“In people who are carrying a lot of excess tissue, the belt is pushed forward and essentially it’s slack,” Reed explains. “So in a crash, especially a frontal crash, the vehicle stops and the person keep sliding forward until the belt arrests.”
“In an obese person, it has to push aside all of that soft tissue in order to get down to the bone where it can really start to slow a person down,” he says.
What to look for when purchasing a car
If you are obese, it is essential that you look for specific safety details when purchasing a new or used car. The following, taken from Edmunds.com, explains what you should look for.
- Make sure you can buckle up with a seat belt that fits properly. Many car manufacturers offer seat belt extenders, or provide longer factory-installed belts, either as a free upgrade or for an added cost.
- Look for a vehicle with enough “crush” space: the area between the seat and the steering column that helps absorb some of the force in a crash and provides a “cushion” of protection. Obese drivers may be more susceptible to injury in an accident when there’s less of a crush space.
- Choose a vehicle that allows you to sit in a safe driving position. According to the American Automobile Association, the ideal driving position is one in which there are 10-12 inches between the center of the steering wheel and the driver’s breastbone. If a driver sits too close to the wheel, it can hinder steering and lead to fatigue. More importantly, it puts the driver at risk for airbag injury in the event of a collision.
- Choose a bigger, heavier vehicle. “Bigger vehicles usually have longer front ends, with longer crush zones. The longer the crush zone, the longer the vehicle crushes and the lower the force on the occupants inside,” said Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS, referring to a series of tests on the safety consequences of vehicle size and weight. “People in larger, heavier cars will fare better in crashes than people in smaller, lighter cars.”
- Buy a vehicle with a good safety rating from IIHS or NHTSA.
- Consider a newer vehicle that offers electronic warning systems that make it easier to back up and maneuver.
With obesity being a health epidemic in our country, safe driving has become a related issue. I hope this article will shed some light on how to be safer when driving a car.
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