How one woman helped make preventable injuries an American public health issue

The epidemiologist Susan P. Baker devoted her career to making preventable injuries a public health issue. Here is part of the story:

She embarked on an independent research project — a comparison of drivers who were not responsible for their fatal crashes with drivers who were — and in 1968 she sent Haddon a letter seeking federal financing for her study. He came through with $10,000 and continued to finance her research after he became president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety a year later…

Among Baker’s most important legacies is the widespread use of the infant car seat. By examining data from car crashes, she demonstrated that the passengers most likely to die were those younger than 6 months. They were killed at double the rate of 1-year-olds and triple the rate for ages 6 to 12. Why? Because babies rested in their mothers’ arms or laps, often in the front passenger seat, and because their still-fragile bodies were more susceptible to fatal injury than those of older children. Baker published her study in the journal Pediatrics in 1979, making headlines in newspapers across the country…

Around that time, Baker was one of the main authors of a report calling for the creation of a federal injury-prevention agency. Today the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control coordinates with state programs and underwrites research projects aimed at preventing injury, ranging from the intentional (rape, homicide, suicide) to the unintentional (falls, residential fires, drownings)…

Of course, Baker knows that we can’t make the world completely injury-proof. But her decades of research show how fairly simple preventive measures — fences around swimming pools, bike helmets, childproof caps on medicine containers — can save thousands of lives.

I couldn’t help thinking while reading this story that it demonstrates the interplay between science, culture, and government. The first paragraph of the article argues that in the 1960s that few people worried about preventable injuries but this has clearly changed since. Aiding this process was new scientific findings about injuries as well as presentable statistics that captured people’s attention. This reminds me of sociologist Joel Best’s explanation in Damned Lies and Statistics that the use of statistics emerged in the mid 1800s because reformers wanted to attach numbers and science to social problems they cared about. But for these numbers to matter and the science to be taken seriously, you need a culture as well as institutions that see science as a viable way of knowing about the world. Similarly, the numbers themselves are not enough to immediately lead to change; social problems such as automobile deaths go through a process by which the public becomes aware, a critical mass starts pressing the issue, and leaders respond by changing regulations. Is it a coincidence that these concerns about public health began to emerge in the 1960s at the same time of American ascendency in the scientific realm, the growth of the welfare state, the continued development of the mass media as well as mass consumption, and an era of more movements calling for human rights and governmental protections? Probably not.

h/t Instapundit

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