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Drinking and Being Driven Don't Mix

Intoxicated passengers at high risk after crashes

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 14, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A new study may prompt a new twist for an old saying: Don't drink and be driven.

Drunken passengers are at the same risk of repeated trips to the hospital following an accident as are drunken drivers, the study shows. Those passengers are also at increased risk of dying for up to five years after being injured in a car crash.

Intoxicated passengers injured in car crashes are up to 2.5 times more likely to land in the hospital again within five years when compared to non-intoxicated passengers, and are almost six times more likely to die, the study shows.

Doctors should steer intoxicated passengers to the same kind of alcohol treatment programs they send drunken drivers to, the researchers say.

"Any hospital that deals with injured patients, any physician or health care worker who deals with people who drink should offer them alcohol treatment services after a car accident," says study author Dr. Carol Schermer, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque. "People who drink to intoxication, whether driver or passenger, are at an increased risk for recurrent hospitalization, injury and death."

To see if there was a difference in recurrent hospitalization or death rates between drunken and sober car crash patients, Schermer and her colleagues studied all car crash victims admitted to the New Mexico Trauma Center in 1993.

There were a total of 705 motor vehicle crash occupants, 338 of whom were intoxicated and 367 of whom were not. About one-third of the patients in each group were passengers.

"What we studied with these groups of people is how many times they revisited our emergency room or were admitted to the hospital for any cause," Schermer explains. "Drunk drivers and drunk passengers both were about two to two and half times more likely to return to the hospital than non-intoxicated passengers."

Schermer then looked at two years of patients' records from motor vehicle accidents at the same trauma center to compare death rates between intoxicated and non-intoxicated passengers. "Intoxicated passengers were 5.8 times more likely to die than age matched controls in New Mexico," she reports.

The findings were published in the November issue of the Archives of Surgery.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of injury -- and death by injury -- in the United States, and drinking is the leading risk factor for injury. Drinking and driving has been linked to nearly half of all fatal motor vehicle crashes, Schermer says. Drunken drivers are three to five times more likely than the general population to be killed in a car crash and between 25 to 40 percent of all trauma patients have been linked to drinking and driving.

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), America experienced the largest percentage increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths on record last year.

In 2000, 16,653 people were killed in crashes involving alcohol, representing 40 percent of the 41,821 people killed in all traffic crashes. That's compared to the 38.3 percent of alcohol-related fatalities reported in 1999.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has always concentrated on the driver, not the passenger, says Millie Webb, MADD's national president. "As a victim advocate, we've gotten the message out about drinking and driving but we've not really dealt with passengers," Webb says.

Webb says she's dealt with families who have lost loved ones who were passengers in drunken driving crashes. She always urges people against drinking and driving and against hopping into a car with someone who was drinking. "This study bring to light that passengers who are intoxicated themselves have had their ability to discern whether someone has been drinking taken away. That's what alcohol does."

Webb agrees that health care professionals need to be alert to the alcohol consumption of patients. "The problem is that some trauma centers have failed to report alcohol consumption because health insurance programs can deny payment for patients who test positive. That needs to change."

"Drunk driving is still the most frequently committed violent crime in our country," Webb says. "We need to take steps to deal with it. We need more effective laws, we need the support of our law enforcement community, and we need judges who prosecute to the full extent of the law."

What To Do

If you've been drinking, walk or take a cab whether you had been a driver or a passenger. This study shows that your problems won't go away simply because you weren't the one behind the wheel.

For more on drinking and driving, see the National Commission Against Drunk Driving or MADD.

SOURCES: Interviews with Carol Schermer, M.D., assistant professor of surgery, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, and Millie Webb, national president, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Franklin Tenn.; November 2001 Archives of Surgery
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