When you tell people that you’re pregnant the first thing they do is give you lots of advice: friends, family, doctors, people in the street and even warning labels on products. “Do this.” “Don’t do that.” “Don’t drink alcohol.” “Keep away from smokers.” “Don’t drink too much caffeine.” “Don’t eat sushi.” “Think twice before getting on a rollercoaster.” But nobody says “don’t drive”. As far as risk during pregnancy is concerned, getting in a car can be as dangerous as smoking or drinking.
The danger associated with driving for pregnant women is so significant that doctors ought to ask pregnant women about their driving habits. This is the conclusion of professor Hank Weiss, of the University of Otago in New Zealand in a study on the risk of injury from accidents during pregnancy. “The danger involved is equivalent to the danger of smoking or drinking alcohol”, states the doctor. Being involved in a traffic accident can lead to complications which include premature labour or placental displacement.
Driving is so much a part of modern day life that we rarely think of it as a public health problem. But it is. Not only because of the pollution it generates, affecting the entire population, but driving is especially dangerous for vulnerable people such as pregnant women. For over two decades, Weiss has been studying the risk posed to pregnant women and foetuses in car crashes. His most recent work, published in the Journal of the Australian Epidemiological Association, looks at statistics in New Zealand, which show that from 1997 to 2007 there were 21 stillbirths and neonatal deaths in the country. The island has one of the highest rates of car ownership, higher only in Portugal and the United States. The average distance covered by New Zealand women aged 15 to 39 increased by 40% between 1990 and 2000.
Using cars leads to increased risk. In the United States, car accidents are the main cause of trauma for women during pregnancy, according to another article by Weiss and his colleague Catherine Vladutiu in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, in 2011. The risk of trauma is greater with cars than with a fall or a bike accident. Car crashes during pregnancy are the main cause of stillbirth and serious injury to the mother, as well as morbidity and mortality in the United States: 92,500 women sustain injuries in car crashes each year.
We have created an environment that promotes the non-stop use of vehicles”, states Weiss. At the same time, increasingly more women of a childbearing age work and are travelling to the workplace by car. Although the number of pregnant women in car accidents has risen, the message delivered by public health directives does nothing to address the reality of this situation. “Doctors should be involved: not using cars when pregnant ought to be a widely accepted recommendation”. The reality, however, is that women not driving simply isn’t feasible in a car-centric society.
Firstly, pregnant women should be given advice on wearing seatbelts correctly around their hips and the risk posed by airbags. If possible, women should avoid driving at night-time and in bad weather. These measures may seem extreme in a society where the car has become a vital part of daily life but, taking into account the risk involved, would it not be possible to include these recommendations in the advice given to pregnant women? Weiss analyses the issue from a purely statistical point of view. “If the number of journeys made in car was reduced by 50%, the risk would be reduced by 50%”, he concludes.