It’s no accident that the number-one threat to the health of teens and young adults is–accidents. Overall, teens are very healthy. Everyone assumes that. Very few teens die each year compared to other age groups. But of the teens who do die, the three leading causes of death–accidents, suicide, and homicide–don’t include one single disease.
Though the total number of teen deaths each year is low, these statistics are still tragic. (For each teen death, there are also 41 hospitalizations and 1,100 emergency room visits.) The accident statistics are especially tragic because the U.S. Surgeon General has estimated that as many as 50 percent of these accidental deaths and injuries could have been prevented. But how? Experts say the first and most important step in preventing accidents is to assess risk.
We often hear accidents described as events we can’t control. “Things just happened so fast.” “It must be fate, or destiny.” “I guess I just had bad luck.” But scientists and public health experts, like the U.S. Surgeon General, disagree. These experts say that even the strangest, most unlikely accidents occur in predictable ways. Ways that, when they are recognized, we can avoid or stop. And accidents occur most often to people who can be identified as being more “at risk” than others because of behavior, age, or other factors.
A Chain Reaction
By studying all the circumstances leading up to an accident (not just the accident itself), scientists are able to identify “causation chains.” These chains are made of linked individual events and decisions that are part of the total physical and psychological environment of an accident.
An example: Links in a causation chain for a fatal auto accident may include:
–an inexperienced driver
–too many passengers creating noise and distraction
–driving an unfamiliar route
–poor lighting at an intersection
–no use of seat belts
Some of these links are physical, like the slippery pavement. Others are mental, such as the inexperience of the driver. These mental or psychological links are especially important, because they are often the ones we can do the most about. To help us understand, psychologists have labeled the most important mental links in the causation chain.
* Motivation: Are you motivated toward safe behavior or risky behavior (taking a dare, speeding to get somewhere)? If you are driving, are you joyriding, or are you driving for a purpose, such as going to work or school?
* Attitude: How do you view yourself and others during an activity? Do you consciously accept responsibility for their safety? Do you include others when making decisions along a potential accident chain?
* Skill: How experienced and adept are you at the activity? How long have you had your driver’s license? Do you know how to manage a car in a skid? Do you know how to power a motorboat? Are you a good swimmer?
* State of Alertness: Are you bored? Tired? Distracted? Stressed out? Under the influence of alcohol, illicit drugs, or even prescribed medication (factors that alone can cause a serious risk, even if all the other conditions are ideal)?
By being aware of your state of mind, you can do a self-assessment of your risk for an accident. And if you see a risk, you can take steps to break the accident chain. What are the risks teens face–and what can be done about them?
Born to Be Wild?
Like the song from the movie “Easy Rider” says, there’s a feeling of freedom that comes with getting your motor running and heading out onto the highway. Getting a driver’s license can be exciting. But with the new-found freedom of the road, “whatever comes your way” can also be very specific: a dramatically increased risk of accidental injury or death.
How dramatic an increase? While you are in high school, your chance of dying in an auto accident is four times greater than when you were in junior high. In fact, most injury-related deaths among young people involve motor vehicles. Half of fatal crashes involving youths occur at night, even though 80 percent of young drivers’ travel is done during daylight.
Research also shows that young drivers are less likely to drink and drive than adults, but when they do drink they have a greater risk of being in a crash. Another risk factor in automobile use is the fact that teens have the worst record of all age groups when it comes to buckling their seat belts. Further, when teens do have an accident, it usually results in a worse accident–more damage, more injuries–than one by an adult. That’s a key reason why auto insurance for teens is so expensive.
Things You Can Do
Those are the risks involved with driving. Knowing those risks suggests several positive things you can do to reduce your risk of death or injury in an automobile accident.
* Buckle up. Some newer cars have passenger restraints that automatically place the shoulder harness across the passenger. But don’t forget the lap belt. And even if your car has air bags, remember that the bags work best only in head-on collisions. Seat belts are still your best protection in any other type of collision. Even better news is the fact that drivers who wear seat belts are less likely to get in an accident in the first place. The reason? Better mental attitude. When you remember to buckle up, you’re also putting your mind in the right attitude for safe driving.
* Drive sober. That goes for drivers and passengers. A passenger in a car driven by an intoxicated driver is at great risk, too. And drunk passengers are a threat to even a sober driver. Organizations such as Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD) and Teen Saferides (sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America) offer no-questions-asked rides and other services to make sure you don’t mix automobiles and alcohol. In just five years, these groups and others have been credited with reducing the number of alcohol-related teenage auto fatalities by 25 percent. Raising the legal drinking age to 21 has also reduced fatalities substantially.
* Watch out at night. Driving at night? Be aware that you are at greater risk–especially after midnight. Some states have imposed night-time driving curfews on 16-year-old drivers. These curfews have reduced teenage auto fatalities by 69 percent. Since half of the fatal accidents involving 16- to 19-year-olds occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., other states may soon follow suit.
* Stop and think. Examine your mental condition for driving: motivation, attitude, skill, and alertness. Are you in a frame of mind that puts you at risk for an accident? If the answer is yes or even maybe, take action to break the accident causation chain. Switch drivers. Use another form of transportation. Call for a ride. They’re all better than traveling by ambulance.
* Wear a helmet (if you’re on two wheels). There is a lot of controversy about helmet laws for motorcyclists and bicyclists. But there’s no controversy about the fact that helmet use could cut motorcycle fatalities by 28 percent. The same goes for bicyclists. Almost nine out of 10 bicycling fatalities are caused by head injuries. Wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent.
Risky Business: Injuries at Work
With more and more teenagers holding jobs–8 million by one recent count–work-related injuries among young people are on the rise. One study of injury cases brought into hospitals found that 24 percent of all injuries to youths age 14 to 19 were work-related. Whether it’s a burn from hot oil at a fast food restaurant, a machinery-mangled hand at an assembly plant, or even a shooting at a convenience store–youths who work face added injury risk.
Most teens who work usually do so part-time during the school year or full-time during summer vacation. These young people face different risks than do adults with full-time jobs. Summer jobs, for example, often put young workers in unfamiliar environments, sometimes with little time for training. And even less time to gain experience. And therefore, a greater risk for accidental injury.
Fatigue or poor mental attitude also affects teens on the job–especially after a hard day at school. The combination of fatigue and inexperience can be especially dangerous when they are working around heavy machinery or in factories or warehouses.
One way to prevent accidents on the job is to heed all warning and danger markings. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the federal government, requires employers to clearly mark dangers in the work area. For example, potentially dangerous machinery or areas in a factory must be marked by bright yellow lines on the floor. Don’t cross these lines unles you know how to safely operate what’s on the other side. Hot or caustic liquids and other dangerous materials must be clearly marked with appropriate labels Pay attention!
A number of other techniques can also help prevent accidents on the job. Keep close tabs on your mental condition for signs of fatigue or inattention. Watch the work habits and tempos of older, more experienced workers and supervisors to see how they work safely. Talk with them about it; they usually have stories about near-misses they’d be eager to recall. Check safety manuals for procedures and injury-prevention tips.
Whether you play organized sports on a community or school athletic team, or whether you play strictly for recreation, injuries are a risk. As sports-related injuries for young people have increased dramatically in recent years, doctors have identified two main categories of sports injury: single impact (cuts, broken bones) and repetitive (overuse).
Regardless of which sports you like to play, you can reduce your risk of both types of sports injury while increasing your performance or enjoyment. Here’s how.
* Get in shape. Proper conditioning directly reduces the likelihood of injury. Good conditioning ensures that your body is strong and flexible enough to take the physical stress. (Conditioning is especially important for seasonal activities such as skiing or swimming.) Indirectly, conditioning reduces the overall risk of injury. When you’re in good shape, you’re less likely to become fatigued. And, just as with driving or working, staying alert reduces the risk of injury.
* Don’t overdo it. Avoid excess in training and conditioning as well as when playing. Listen to your body. Pain is a warning signal, not something to expect and ignore. This is especially important when you play more than one sport or activity.
* Use the right biomechanics. The top coaches drill “the fundamentals” constantly. And for good reason. The basic biomechanical movements of each sport such as tennis strokes, ball throwing, or hurdling are more than ways to achieve top performance. They’re ways of reducing repetitive, or overuse, injuries. When you hear about the end of a young athlete’s career because of “pitcher’s elbow” or a “blown shoulder,” it’s often the result of improper biomechanical motion repeated over many years.
* Wear appropriate equipment. In heavy contact sports such as football or hockey, proper equipment is a requirement to play. But even in other sports, properly fitted mouth guards, helmets, and pads can reduce injury. For example, one study of high school athletes showed that 75 percent of all mouth injuries occurred when not wearing mouth guards, especially in sports such as baseball and basketball.
There is one more risk associated with sports and exercise–the risk of not being physically active at all. Studies have shown that physical activity during school years is extremely important for proper development of the body and the mind. And most experts agree that physical fitness reduces injuries.
An old joke goes: “What’s better than presence of mind in an accident? Absence of body.” By assessing risks, using common sense, and taking action to break accident causation chains, you can improve your chances of being absent from future accidents.