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Summer Risks vs. Realities

The news media are so full of warnings about potential summer health hazards that you may wonder, as the season wears on, how anyone ever comes through unscathed.

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The news media are so full of warnings about potential summer health hazards that you may wonder, as the season wears on, how anyone ever comes through unscathed.

Recall, for instance, the summer of 2001, which Time magazine dubbed "The Summer of the Shark" after 50 swimmers were attacked off the coast of the U.S., and three died from their wounds. The next summer brought alarming reports of the rapid spread of West Nile virus. It had made its way from New York to California, infecting thousands and killing hundreds.

What you probably didn't hear, however, is that for every one unfortunate who met his end in the jaws of a shark, at least 1,000 drowned; and while 201 people nationwide died of West Nile infection in 2002, car crashes killed nearly 43,000.

Heralding the "Summer of the Shark" undoubtedly sold more magazines than "The Summer of the Dangerous Undertow" would have, but because of sensational reporting, or in the case of West Nile virus, aggressive public awareness campaigns, these relatively remote risks stay at the front of our minds.

"The topical rather than the important hazards tend to get the most attention," says National Safety Council spokesman John Ulczycki. "People may misinterpret or misunderstand where the real risk is."

Blood and Asphalt

According to Ulczycki, having an automobile accident is the gravest summertime threat. "For most age groups it is the No. 1 cause of injury death," he says. In summer, more cars travel the nation's roads for more miles, and more drivers are teenagers and young adults, who are especially prone to car wrecks. As a result, the months of June, July, and August have the highest rate of automobile fatalities.

Your local TV news may run a cautionary segment on barbecue safety after someone suffers burns from an exploding propane tank. Or you may be alerted to the dangers of cryptosporidium bacteria in swimming pools, as in a recent New York Times story. Ulczycki sees a problem when people fuss over these kinds of risks and then neglect to buckle the seatbelt when they get into a car.

Perhaps, he speculates, Americans have developed such a fatalistic attitude about car crashes that we've come to accept them as kind of natural phenomenon. At the National Safety Council, "we fundamentally don't accept that," he says.

If you're really concerned about living to see September, wear a seatbelt, drive defensively, and don't drive while drunk or drowsy.

Bicycling can be another perilous summertime activity. "About 85% of all bicycling fatalities are head injuries," Ulczycki says. So when you ride, it's best to wear a helmet, no matter how dorky it makes you feel.

"It's a cultural issue about wearing a helmet. I grew up in the '60s, and we didn't wear helmets when we were kids," Ulczycki says. It may be hard to make yourself put on a helmet when you've been riding for decades without one, but he says, "one fall and you won't have to worry about making that choice again."

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