The health effects of driving


The art of driving is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. In places like Nigeria, driving itself resembles war. Despite that fact, many people do not give driving a second thought when they get behind the steering, start their engines and zoom off to wherever it is they want to go.

However, this is also one of the most dangerous jobs on earth with the risk of dying or suffering minor, moderately severe and severe injuries as a result of which some would experience life-changing events that would permanently alter their lives. Think of it; you drive out of your compound and set out on the road to your office. And then, a tipper driver whose brakes have failed rams into your car from behind causing extensive damage to your vehicle and damaging your spinal cord.

Paralysis results and it may be from the waist down to the legs or from the neck down. The kind of life that awaits such a person in a country that challenges even those who are physically fit is best left to the imagination. Many people do not even give a thought to problems like these as they hop into their cars at daybreak and head away from home.

In Nigeria, road traffic accidents are the third leading cause of death in the country. In January 2018 alone according to the Federal Road Safety Corps, there were 456 reported deaths from more than 800 motor vehicle accidents across the nation. More than 3,400 people were injured. In the previous month of December, 2017 there were more than 550 people killed in road traffic accidents. In most of these incidents, excessive speeding and reckless driving were to blame for the accidents. 

In the United States of America, there are about 6 million road traffic accidents every year with more than 90 deaths occurring every day from them. That figure translates to nearly 40,000 deaths annually from road traffic accidents and that is in a country with strict speed limits. In this less chaotic road traffic as seen in the US, some three million Americans still suffer injuries resulting from such accidents. These are humbling statistics that should alter our behaviour while on the road for the better.

The meaning of these sobering figures is that when you get into a car to head out to anywhere for that matter, you have about one chance in 24 of suffering significant bodily injuries or even death. This ought to be a sobering reality for many people but it is not often the case. Other related health risks of driving include anxiety and undue agitation. These are factors related to the peculiarities of driving on Nigerian roads, the presence of all sorts of competitors for the available road space such as cart-pushers, truck-pushers, and commercial motorcycle riders, pedestrians crossing major roads at unexpected points, commercial bus drivers and the new menace of tricycles.  Some of these road users compound the chaos by willfully driving their various vehicles against the flow of traffic in both the cities and the country roads. When accidents occur, therefore, they are often severe with many cases going unreported.

Adding to the anxiety, of course, is the presence of serious craters that can break the axles of your car, the mindless speed of other drivers regardless of these natural obstacles and the associated fear of running into violent gangs, armed robbers or kidnappers. The sheer effort made therefore to travel even a short distance is a problematic one and makes people arrive at their destination irritable, sweaty and tired. If the destination is the workplace and this individual commutes from a significant distance, the effect can be better imagined.

 The work output is then poorer, diligence is shoddy and the individual is often in a hurry to do tasks that ordinarily would command his undivided attention. Attention span diminishes and the person is always tired. It is a vicious cycle that often can lead to other problems. In at least two cases known personally to me, there are women who do not drive their cars unless they have swallowed a tablet of the drug bromazepam. They argue that the medication helps them to cope with the madness but the brutal fact is that they are now addicted to that drug; they are unable to drive safely without taking it.

As the quality of sleep worsens, the person tends to gain weight. This sort of weight gain not based on diet but on stress tends to make such people prone to developing high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease. The trend is not one that could command a lot of attention from health workers but it follows logic that one who is weary in the morning is not likely to walk any significant distance if he has a car; they would rather drive. 

The person who takes at least 8,000 steps per day is effectively burning calories. It is noteworthy that such an individual who chooses to walk rather than to drive where possible is less likely to succumb to any of these conditions. Of all those health effects, the problem of heart disease and high blood pressure are the most worrisome for any driver. The addition of traffic-related anxiety or even terror to these issues can bring a serious health emergency about such as a stroke while driving or a heart attack.

In a past essay, we learnt how a middle-aged man who suffered a stroke while driving his car ended up in a massive drain beside the road. By the time he was reached by rescuers, he was unable to move one side of his body. At least, he was alive. On a major road and at speed, he would probably have suffered significant injuries if not death and be in no position to talk about life. In addition, it is clear to many observers that even the happenstance of sitting still in a traffic holdup causes its own peculiar kind of stress. 

People develop anxieties in these situations because they have appointments to meet up with, flights to catch and a thousand other things. Sometimes, it is even a health-related emergency and the traffic situation just makes it impossible to get to a hospital. Only two years ago, yours truly was involved in having to take care of a woman under the bridge at Mile 12 in Lagos because she was stuck in traffic on her way to the hospital. While that particular event ended on a happy note in the end, things could easily have gone out of hand.

Finally is the specter of drug addiction that should also concern us. And by drugs here is meant the habit of taking any substance at all before commencing on a road trip. We have seen the two Bromazepam women above. Others take stronger medicines. Some take alcohol which is a surprise but one which allows them to behave like animals if necessary. Once under these unusual influences, such people become a danger to themselves and to other road users. It is a huge and growing problem.