What Your OB May Not Be Telling You About Driving While Pregnant

Have you thought about how to stay safe driving while pregnant?

Pregnant Woman Having 4D Ultrasound ScanYou are about to be a parent. You are getting as prepared as possible. You are eating right and staying away from foods that could be harmful to your baby. You are planning the nursery and shopping for things like bedding and an infant car seat.

You know once that baby is born, you can’t drive anywhere without safely buckling in your baby into the car seat. Of course you will because you want to protect your baby no matter what. But what about now, are you keeping your baby safe in the car during your pregnancy?

Did you know that the fetus of a pregnant woman has been shown to be at five times the risk of a 0 to 1 year old infant in the same car using standard, mandated restraint systems? You are required by law to protect your infant, buckling her into properly installed a rear-facing child restraint. Are you required by love to protect the baby in your womb?

Recent studies predict anywhere from 700 to 5,000 pregnancies are lost every year due to motor vehicle crashes. Even on the low end, that is almost six times the average of 120 infants who die in car crashes every year. That’s an incredible figure.

At this point you may be asking why is it such a wide range? The reason it’s hard to tell is because miscarriage occurs in 10-20% of all pregnancies in the first trimester or so, only deaths to fetuses over 20 weeks gestational age are legally defined and required to be recorded. Sometimes a pregnant women is in a minor “fender bender” and doesn’t miscarry the baby until weeks later and the connection is never made.

A study by the University of Michigan estimates that about 170,000 car crashes in the U.S. each year involve pregnant women. On average, 2.9% of women report being hurt in a “car accident” during pregnancy. If you do the math based on an average of 4 million babies born a year, that’s 116,000 crashes where a mom-to-be is injured, at least somewhat.

The risk of adverse fetal injuries, such as placental abruption, uterine rupture, direct fetal injury, maternal death or fetal loss, in a low speed 16 MPH frontal crash at 28 weeks gestation is 26% for belted drivers and 70% for unbelted drivers.

What if we could lower the numbers?

There are a lot of factors affecting pregnant women’s and their babies safety in the car. Some of these factors include: the simple exhaustion and hormones affecting the driver’s concentration, the steering wheel that is close to the belly, the airbag that could impact the belly and the seat belt that could intrude through the pregnancy to engage the hip bones the way it is designed to do—sometimes pregnant women find the seat belt so uncomfortable they choose not to wear it at all.

According to former Director of the Office of Crashworthiness at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Jim Hoffrberth, it was known some 50 years ago that seat belts were not an optimal design for keeping pregnant women and their babies safe. But the design worked for most of the rest of the population and at that time pregnant women just weren’t in the car that much. However, the total annual miles driven by women of reproductive age increased 275% from 1969 to 1990. This represents a major increase in fetal exposure to crash risks over 30 years and has likely increased more since then.

Although pregnant women’s exposure to motor vehicle crashes has increased, the public health message has lagged behind. Professor Hank Weiss, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, who has been studying the risks posed to pregnant women and fetuses by motor vehicle trauma for more than 20 years, doesn’t anticipate that we’ll be seeing warning labels about driving while pregnant on cars anytime soon.

“It’s more effective if it comes from a health care provider,” Weiss said in one report. “It should involve clinicians and direct counseling. It should be on the list of things that women are told to think about.”

But it’s not. Obstetricians have a lot to cover during a pregnancy and often they have been told seat belts are effective at protecting pregnant women, if the women follows NHTSA’s recommendations for seat belt positioning during pregnancy. And it is effective—using a seat belt during pregnancy is three times safe than not using one. But accounting for all the pregnancies still being lost, just using the seat belt not effective enough and when the seat belt is so uncomfortable across the low belly that pregnant women don’t even wear it, it’s not effective at all.

There must be a better way

It’s unlikely you can really stay home from now until you are rushed to the hospital. Here are some tips to staying safer in the car when you are driving while pregnant and protect that little one growing in your belly:

  • Gauge how you feel. If you are feeling fatigued, nauseated or otherwise out of sorts, eat a snack, drink some water or take a rest. Wait to drive until you feel you can have more focus.
  • Be a passenger. When possible, don’t drive, especially as your pregnancy progresses and your uterus gets closer and closer to the steering wheel.
  • If you are driving:
    • Cut down on distractions. Put your phone away and be extra cautious in inclement weather or on busy roads.
    • Position yourself far back from the steering wheel. Move your seat as far back as is comfortable. Try to position yourself so that your breastbone is at least 10 inches from the steering wheel.
    • Tilt the steering wheel toward your breastbone rather than toward your abdomen.
    • Remove extra layers. Coats and jackets could interfere with the placement of the seat belt.
    • Buckle up correctly. NHTSA recommends that pregnant women wear their safety belt with the lap portion placed under the abdomen and across the upper thighs, as low as possible on the hips and the shoulder strap runs across your chest.
    • If you use a seat belt redirection device make sure it has been well designed and crash tested. There is one device called the Tummy Shield that is highly engineered and crash tested which redirects the lap portion of the seat belt away from the abdomen, creating leg harness, much like a race car driver’s seat belt. Crash testing shows the Tummy Shield restrains the woman just as well as just the seat belt while protecting the abdomen from possible injury from the seat belt going across the belly.

Greg Durocher has been a certified CPS Technician Instructor since 2002. Prior to becoming CEO at Safe Ride 4 Kids, he was a career firefighter and paramedic for 13 years. He is the father of three children and lives in Denver.

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