The medical community continues to sound the alarm on obesity with the American medical society declaring it a disease. More than 4.3% of the Ugandan adults are considered obese according to the CIA world fact book, and while some health experts argue against the disease label, the reality is that being obese puts people at an increased risk for developing diabetes, heart disease and several types of cancer.
The health risks don't end there. Several recent studies found that obese people are not as safe behind the wheel. One culprit may be ill-fitting seatbelts, or the failure to use a seatbelt at all due to excess tissue. Another one could be stressful driving conditions that raise blood pressure, predisposing obese persons to heart attacks and strokes.
Increased risk of death
Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) over 30. A healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Morbidly obese individuals, defined as those with a BMI of more than 40, are 56 percent more likely to die in a car crash than normal-weight individuals. That conclusion comes from a 2010 State University of New York at Buffalo analysis of national Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data of more than 155,000 drivers involved in severe motor vehicle accidents.
Those who were moderately obese, with a BMI between 35 and 40, were 21 percent more likely to die in a car crash.
A 2012 study by transportation safety researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of West Virginia had more startling results: Drivers with a BMI between 30 and 34.9 had an increased risk of death of 21 percent. For those with a BMI between 35 and 39.9, the risk was 51 percent greater. Those with a BMI of 40 and over had an 80 percent increased risk of death.
Obese women fared even worse. Female drivers with a BMI of 35 to 39.9 had double the risk of dying in a car accident compared to normal weight female drivers. Morbidly obese female drivers were almost twice as likely as morbidly obese male drivers to be killed in a severe car crash, found the Berkeley and WVU researchers.
People who are obese often have other underlying health issues that contribute to them doing poorly if they have an accident, says Dr. Dietrich Jehle, a professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo's School of Medicine and Biomechanical Sciences and author of several studies on how obesity impacts vehicular safety.
Interestingly, thinner isn't necessarily better when it comes to surviving a car crash. Both death-risk studies found that slightly underweight individuals were more likely than normal weight folks to die in a severe crash. The 2010 University at Buffalo study also found that normal weight folks had a slight risk of death, compared to overweight individuals with a BMI of 25-30. Slightly overweight drivers fared the best, with a 5 percent lower risk of death in a vehicular accident than those of normal weight.
Obese drivers may also develop health issues that make them less safe on the roads. Obesity is the leading cause of obstructive sleep apnea, (OSA) a chronic disorder that interrupts sleep and causes extreme daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Recent studies have found that people with sleep apnea are at twice the risk of being in a car crash, and three to five times more likely to be in a serious crash resulting in personal injury. OSA affects approximately 20 percent of U.S. adults, but 90 percent remain undiagnosed, according to the National Institute of Health.
What to do??
• Hit the gym, or engage in something to shed weight off.
• Make sure you can buckle up with a seatbelt that fits properly. Many car manufacturers offer seatbelt extenders, or provide longer factory-installed belts, either as a free upgrade or for an added cost.
• Look for a vehicle with enough "crush" space: the area between the seat and the steering column that helps absorb some of the force in a crash and provides a "cushion" of protection. Obese drivers may be more susceptible to injury in an accident when there's less of a crush space.
• Choose a vehicle that allows you to sit in a safe driving position. According to the American Automobile Association, the ideal driving position is one in which there are 10-12 inches between the center of the steering wheel and the driver's breastbone. If a driver sits too close to the wheel, it can hinder steering and lead to fatigue. More importantly, it puts the driver at risk for airbag injury in the event of a collision.
• Choose a bigger, heavier vehicle. Bigger vehicles usually have longer front ends, with longer crash zones. The longer the crush zone, the longer the vehicle crushes and the lower the force on the occupants inside. People in larger, heavier cars will fare better in crashes than people in smaller, lighter cars.