A new study found that obese drivers (people with body mass indexes above 30) are 78 percent more likely to die in a car collision than normal-weight drivers. These findings show an increase in fatalities among heavier victims despite the substantial increase in safety technology for commercial and personal vehicles. Results of the study indicate that obese individuals suffer higher rates of fatalities because they are subject to additional health problems and, possibly, because car safety technology is unable to accommodate them. The study’s findings are alarming to government safety experts because as the rate of obesity in the U.S. continues to rise, fatalities from car crashes could increase despite advances in safety technology.
Who is Obese?
BMI measures body fat in relation to a person’s height. It is a rough estimate of the amount of the body that is composed of fat. There are four basic weight ranges, as measured by body mass index (BMI).
- Underweight: People who are underweight are those with a BMI of less than 18.5.
- Normal Weight: Individuals with a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 are considered normal weight.
- Overweight: A person is classified as overweight if BMI is between 25 to 29.9.
- Obese: People with BMIs above 30 are categorized as obese.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 36.5 percent of U.S. adults are obese. With roughly 300 million people in the United States, over 100 million Americans have a BMI over 30 and are at increased risk of death in a car collision. In Illinois, about 30 to 35 percent of the population is obese. Generally, obesity is more prevalent in rural areas and small towns where a lack of access to healthy food and other healthy-living options is more common than in urban areas.
Will Obesity Continue to Weigh Heavily on American Safety?
A study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health found that if eating habits don’t change, 50 percent of U.S. adults will be obese by 2030. The study notes that in 13 states obesity rates will skyrocket to over 60 percent by 2030. Several prominent researchers, however, point out that this study assumes a straight-line projected growth in obesity whereas the CDC’s latest figures from 2008 to 2010 found that rates were stable. Regardless of the projections, with more than one-third of American adults suffering from obesity, this public health crisis has a significant effect on car accident fatality rates in the United States.
Evaluating the Role of Obesity in Car Accidents
The study was conducted by the Safe Transportation and Research Center (SafeTREC), which is a research group associated with the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, and the Institute of Transportation Studies. The study utilized data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, recorded as part of its Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The researchers reviewed 41,283 collisions, narrowing the study to vehicles who were of the same size. The researchers then cross-referenced those figures with height and weight data from the drivers’ licenses to estimate the BMI of the drivers involved in these accidents. The authors then categorized the data based on the BMI results. They also controlled for other factors that could contribute to a fatality such as:
- Failure to wear a seatbelt;
- The sex of the driver;
- Time of day of the crash;
- Alcohol use;
- Collision type; and
- Air bag deployment.
The study found that accident victims who were classified as underweight and those who were overweight suffered fatalities at roughly the same rate as drivers who were of normal weight. However, the study found that motorists who were obese suffered higher death rates.
Accident victims with a BMI between 30 to 34.9 incurred a 21 percent increase in death. Drivers with BMIs between 35 and 39.9 suffered fatalities at a 51 percent increase. Finally, people with a BMI over 40 were 81 percent more likely to die in a car accident. Additionally, the study found that obese women were more likely to die in crashes than obese men. The researchers noted that these increases occur regardless of whether the driver is wearing a seatbelt or airbag deployment occurs.
Safety Technology is Inadequate Protection for Obese Victims
The study posited that car safety technology is not designed to accommodate obese individuals. Car crash tests are conducted using dummies and information based on drivers and passengers of normal-weight. Therefore, the study hypothesizes that safety technology cannot protect obese individuals because it is unable to accommodate them. Additionally, the researchers note that obese individuals are at an attendant increased risk of other health issues such as heart attacks and strokes which could be induced by the stress of car collisions.