FRIDAY, March 24, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- A report on car seat belts and airbags turned up a statistic that has researchers scratching their heads.
While all racial groups reported about the same use of the safety devices, white drivers and passengers had a 50 percent increased risk of death and a significantly higher incidence of severe injury during vehicle accidents than non-white vehicle occupants.
Just why that would be the case is so far a mystery to Dr. Justin S. Cummins, an orthopedic surgeon at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., who was lead author of the study.
"The study wasn't designed to answer the question," he said. "It is only speculative to try to come up with an answer, but it could be a difference in driving patterns." It may be that as a group white people drive faster, or it may have something to do with the kinds of cars they drive, he said.
Another difference might be the roads they travel, said Bella Dinh-Zarr, national director for traffic safety policy at the AAA, in Washington, D.C.
Cummins presented the research Thursday at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons annual meeting, in Chicago.
He noted that the racial makeup of the subjects closely mirrored U.S. demographics. But the doctors both said the finding might also be a statistical mistake.
"The worry is [that] you are getting only the whites with the more severe injuries, vs. others who had less severe injuries," said Dinh-Zarr.
The researchers analyzed National Trauma Data Bank statistics of nearly 185,000 patients (56 percent male) of various ethnicities involved in single- and multiple-vehicle collisions from 1998 to 2004. The data bank relies on trauma centers to voluntary submit statistics.
The research showed that deaths from the reported accidents decreased from nearly 6 percent when no safety device was used to just over 2 percent when seat belts were used in combination with airbags. Serious injuries were reduced as well.
Using a seat belt alone nearly halved the risk of death, and airbag deployment alone reduced mortality by more than one-third.
Of the patients studied, about 46 percent had used only a seat belt, 4 percent had used only an airbag, 9 percent used both, and 41 percent used no device at all.
Those over age 65 were more likely to use seat belts or both. Men were less likely to use safety devices than women, which may explain why women were significantly less likely to die in the accidents and showed significantly less risk of injury.
But the study did not provide details that would explain the racial disparity. The data did not show how, where or why the crashes occurred.
Those kinds of details will be studied another day, said Cummins.
For more on traffic safety, head to the U.S. Department of Transportation.