June 21, 1999 PHILADELPHIA -- Although German reunification had many positive political and economic benefits, there was an unintended, tragic consequence in the former East Germany: auto fatalities jumped dramatically in the first two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. From 1989 to 1991, the overall death rate for car occupants in East Germany quadrupled, with an elevenfold increase in deaths among 18-to-20-year-olds. Rapid availability of cars, inexperienced drivers and inadequate roads contributed to the highway carnage, according to a collaborative study by researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. The study was published in the June 19 British Medical Journal.
"This study demonstrates that rapid economic change has a direct, profound effect on injury deaths," said Flaura K. Winston, M.D., Ph.D., of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, lead author of the article. "In the future," she continued, "injury prevention should be considered before major economic changes are implemented." Dr. Winston is the director of Trauma Link, an interdisciplinary center for pediatric trauma research at Children's Hospital.
When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, residents of the former East Germany gained access overnight to Western cars that were previously unavailable. In the subsequent months, the currencies of the former East and West Germany were unified, enabling many more East Germans to purchase cars. Unfortunately, many new drivers were inexperienced. Two thousand more car occupants died in the former East Germany in 1991, compared to average annual figures for 1985 to 1989. Death rates in West Germany changed little before and after reunification.
According to German government statistics cited by the authors, the death rate for occupants of cars in East Germany rose from 4 persons per 100,000 in 1989 to 16 per 100,000 in 1991. During that period, the largest age-related increase in death rates occurred in 18 to 20-year-olds, jumping from 5 per 100,000 to 54 per 100,000. Death rates for 21 to 24-year-olds also climbed sharply, from 5 to 44 per 100,000. The numbers of cars and the total distances traveled both increased by approximately 40 percent in East Germany during that time span.
Many of the deaths might have been prevented with safety measures such as controls on excessive speed, use of seat belts, road improvements and special restrictions on young drivers, conclude the report's authors. "Knowledge gained from the German experience could save lives in other countries where the numbers of new drivers and motor vehicles are escalating rapidly," said Professor Susan P. Baker, of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, and co-author of the study.
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the nation's first children's hospital, is a leader in patient care, education and research. This 373-bed multispecialty hospital provides comprehensive pediatric services to children from before birth through age 19. The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health is the oldest and largest school of public health in the world. Its mission is to improve health around the world and to prevent the spread of disease.
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