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Hispanic Vehicle Fatalities on Rise in US - 2002-12-23

Hispanics, the fastest growing minority group in the United States, are facing a problem that is so serious, it has become major public health issue. They have an incredibly high death rate caused by traffic accidents.

Not all Hispanic drivers are dangerous drivers, just those who take unnecessary risks, who speed, drive while drunk, don't wear seat belts, drive older cars and don't have valid drivers' licenses. Of course, young male drivers from all races and nationalities who are involved in fatalities tend to fit that profile. However, since Latinos in the United States are demographically a very young group, they have more young male drivers, and a higher fatality rate than other ethnic groups.

"Crashes rank as the leading injury related cause of death of Hispanic populations. And in fact from birth through age 44 the number one cause of death overal," says Steven Lowenstein, a public health researcher and emergency medicine instructor at the University of Colorado. He recently completed a study of traffic fatalities in the state, comparing Hispanic drivers with non-Hispanic whites. He found that among everyone on the road - drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists - the risk of dying in an accident was about 75% higher among the Hispanic population.

Rufina Hernandez was executive director of LARASA, the Latin American Research and Services Agency in Denver during the study. She says she isn't surprised "given that we've been seeing data along these lines in the national forum although it's very sad that's the case. The only thing that I would have liked to have seen in addition to what they have produced here is to have broken it down between first generation and more acculturated Latinos so that we could see whether or not this has to do with coming into the country and being exposed to a very different set of regulations in terms of driving laws, etc., of if we're dealing with third or fourth generation that really just aren't heeding the laws."

According to Mr. Lowenstein's study, one of the laws violated by many Latino drivers killed in auto accidents is the requirement to have a driver's license. They were two-and-a-half times more likely to be driving without a valid permit than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. The problem could be made worse by a recent change in Colorado laws barring illegal aliens from getting a driver's license. The state's Latino population has soared in the past decade.

In Central Colorado, where Marie Munday serves as Latino Liason Officer for the local sheriff's department, the number grew from a handful of families in the late 1970s to 15,000 Hispanics today. Officer Munday says many of them have not arrived through legal channels, and are afraid to apply for a driver's license. "It was of the most ridiculous things the State of Colorado did two years ago, to change the driver's license and ID law that someone who is not lawfully residing in the United States can not get a license," she says. "Where other states have gone the opposite way and have provided license for immigrants. Therefore they don't go and they don't take a test. And their not forced to learn how to drive properly. And people who are coming from their backwoods areas don't really understand how it works here. How we drive and what the laws are. It's a hazard for everyone."

In an effort to reduce that risk, LARASA is working with Colorado's Department of Transportation's "Buckle Up" automobile safety campaign. The campaign, in Spanish and English, focuses on the one value Ms. Hernandez feels will reach young Latinos who might not improve their driving habits just to protect themselves. They don't want their behavior behind the wheel to hurt their family. "There is a huge cultural value of the family and that's how we have an impact on a lot of these health decisions. We make them understand that this is for your family," she says.

Positive feedback from the local Hispanic community indicates that the message is getting through.