Northerners are suffering from vehicle disease

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and injury for people between the ages of 15 and 50.

Public health in Canada got its start over a century ago when hospitals were filled with victims of communicable diseases such as cholera and typhus. We need to keep the lid on communicable diseases of course, but it is also important that we work to prevent the diseases that are killing people and putting them in hospitals right now in 2011.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and injury for people between the ages of 15 and 50. Four hundred people die on B.C. roads every year and the risk to people in the northwest is more than twice the provincial average.

We estimate the cost of this carnage to be about $500 million annually in B.C.  In 2007 we estimated direct hospitalization costs in Northern B.C. to be $7 million.

Imagine how we would respond if a new virus from China killed 400 British Columbians and put another 20,000 in hospital in a single year!  What if our government allowed such a virus to go unchecked as it systematically went about killing our family and community members year after year!

Fortunately public health is beginning to understand that preventing road crashes is an important priority:  just as important as reducing tobacco use, tackling obesity, or immunizing children.

Northern Health has taken a lead role through a project called RoadHealth in which a coalition of people and agencies including the RCMP, ICBC, Coroner’s Office, Forest Safety Council, Worksafe BC, and a variety of smaller agencies and groups are working together on the common goal of improving safety for the people who live and drive on Northern Roads every day.

RoadHealth has been associated with a 50 per cent reduction in the number of men killed on northern roads over the past six years. A Road Safety Coalition in the northwest has recently been credited with similar positive results.

While our roads are transportation corridors for the pubic, they are also workplaces for a large number of men driving logging trucks, fuel trucks, transport trucks, oil and gas rigging trucks, delivery vans, ambulances, and many others.

We think that the success of RoadHealth so far reflects the extensive work that has been done with this segment of the road using population. But there is so much more we need to do.

Road crash deaths and injuries are, in theory, 100 per cent preventable.

We should eliminate the word “accident’ from our vocabulary.  Let’s call it “Vehicle Disease”.   Let’s get serious about preventing this new “VD”.

This is the perfect public health issue for our time.

We can start by setting targets for reducing road traffic and our own personal use of motor vehicles. We can stay out of our cars and use our legs, our bicycles, and public transportation at every opportunity. We can expect our governments to support this shift.

Less traffic equals less “VD”.

Less use of motor vehicles also links to a greener environment, less obesity, less pollution and less climate change. Every one of us is at risk for Vehicle Disease and every one of us can contribute to preventing it.

What if our car insurance was paid for by the kilometre instead of by the month or year? A car in the driveway is at no risk so why should we pay for insuring it?

Why not structure the system so that there is an incentive to leave it at home whenever possible?  Why not provide free parking for vehicles with multiple passengers while raising rates for the single occupant ones?  Why not require road maintenance contractors to publish the road crash statistics for their roads, and provide them with incentives for reduced crash rates?

We all have friends and family members who have been devastated by this disease. Why don’t we start taking prevention seriously?  Why don’t we set targets to virtually eliminate this waste of human potential instead of resigning ourselves to making small improvements at the margins?

We can all improve our fitness to drive by improving our overall health and we can all be safer drivers when we are on the roads.  Why don’t doctors ask us about our driving habits as they do about our smoking and drinking behavior? Why not?  Why not?  Why not?

Written by Dr. David Bowering, the Northern Health Authority’s northwest medical health officer based in Terrace, B.C.