CDC study: Even when they don’t kill, car crashes exact a heavy toll

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The thousands of fatalities racked up yearly on America’s roads are tragic events that alter lives forever. But accidents in which nobody dies exact a grim toll too, in injuries — some with lifelong consequences like brain damage and other permanent disabilities — that endanger the financial health of the injured, reduce workplace productivity and burden the health care system.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts dollar amounts on the medical and work-loss cost of nonfatal crashes in 2012, the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available. They’re in the billions.

For every person killed in a crash in 2012, the study found, 100 were treated in an ER and released and eight were hospitalized. The average ER visit cost about $3,300, and the tab for hospitalization averaged $57,000 over the person’s lifetime, said the CDC report.

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According to a report from the National Safety Council, the total cost of a single nonfatal, disabling auto-accident injury in 2012 averaged $78,900 in wage and productivity loss, medical expenses, auto damage, administrative costs and employer’s uninsured costs.

The overall totals are staggering: 2.5 million people went to the ER in 2012, for $8 billion in costs; 200,000 were hospitalized, to the tune of $10 billion. And the injured suffered an estimated $33 billion in lost wages over their lifetimes.

In a statement accompanying the CDC report, Principal Deputy Director Ileana Arias said "Motor vehicle crash injuries occur all too frequently and have health and economic costs for individuals, the health care system, and society. We need to do more to keep people safe and reduce crash injuries and medical costs."

As sobering as these facts are, there actually has been a significant reduction in automotive injuries in the last decade, according to the report. The 2012 figures represent 400,000 fewer ER visits and 5,700 fewer hospitalizations than in 2002 — for a saving of $1.7 billion in medical costs and $2.3 billion in work loss.

The report cites the continuing need for injury-reduction strategies that have driven the downward trend, such as primary-enforcement seatbelt laws — in which an officer can pull over and ticket a driver who is not wearing a seatbelt — child-passenger restraint law and sobriety checkpoints.

And, in a nod to its own statistics-driven approach, it recommends that officials “link medical and crash data to better understand why crashes happen, the economic cost of those crashes, and how to prevent future crashes.”

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