D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     february 2005



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A Tragedy Called TBI

Drunk driving accidents and the brain injuries they cause.

Year in and year out, more than 200 New Mexicans die because of drunk driving accidents. That is almost half of the people killed here in any kind of motor vehicle accident each year. (I am told these figures come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)

And it gets worse. Approximately 1,745 New Mexicans were hospitalized with a brain injury in 2001, and alcohol was a significant factor in approximately 50 percent of those brain injuries. (Most of the statistics in this article come from a very useful handbook, the New Mexico Traumatic Brain Injury Resource Manual, the TBI Manual," available from the New Mexico Brain Injury Advisory Council, www.nmbiac.com or 800-311-2229.)

I represent, and have represented, many persons who have been injured because of drunk drivers, and numerous families of those who have died because of a drunk driver. It isn't pretty. Often, families are torn apart because of the death of a loved one, or sometimes maybe even worse, because a loved one has suffered a devastating "traumatic brain injury" ("TBI").

One of the ironies of drunk driving accidents is that it is often not the drunk driver himself who is killed or who suffers the brain injury. Why? Because the drunk is nice and relaxed when the impact happens, while the innocent victims often see the car coming at them and naturally tense up. This can lead to more serious injuries and death.

Why do we have such a problem with drunk driving in New Mexico and why are there so many DWI accidents? I am not going to try to answer those questions in this article, concentrating more here on the effects of those drunk driving accidents. (For more on DWI, see "Taking the Fourth," page B1.) But I cannot resist making a few comments from personal observations. In New Mexico, especially outside the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area, there has been a love-hate relationship with drinking alcohol. We say we disapprove of it and pass laws restricting the sale and use of alcohol. But we love to drink beer and other alcoholic beverages. I have lived in Southern New Mexico for most of my life. Until fairly recently, if most anyone I knew was going to go out-of-town, say to Albuquerque or even up the road to Elephant Butte, the last stop on the way out of town was at a drive-through window at a package liquor store or supermarket. A six-pack per person was needed for the drive there. While it is now illegal to have an "open container" in a vehicle, if one goes to a party or goes out for an evening on the town, someone who had a few "open containers" may now be driving.

And our roads make it especially dangerous to be on the road at the same time as a drunk driver. For instance, we have had a rash of bad accidents because of cars going the wrong way on the interstate, then hitting victims' cars head-on. These kind of accidents often lead to death or traumatic brain injuries. The drivers of the wrong-way vehicles are usually drunk. So, it is their fault, but that is little consolation to the victims and their families. In the newspaper articles about these head-on interstate accidents, highway officials are often quoted that they checked, and all the warning signs that are supposed to be up were properly located and installed. So, I guess the state highway department concludes there is nothing they need to do. Well, given how often people go the wrong way, by definition there must be more the highway department needs to do to protect us. By definition, there are more or different signs, warnings, or other protective devices called-for. But do not hold your breath wai ting for them to do anything, because they have checked, and all the signs that they put up are still up, so no more needs to be done. My guess is we will have to wait until a family member of a state highway official gets maimed or killed before they do something.

 

Oh that's right, I was going to talk about the effects of drunk driving accidents on the victims. The effects on the victims' families are pretty clear when the victim dies. But what about when the victim lives, but has a traumatic brain injury?

First, what is a "traumatic brain injury"? This is what the TBI Manual says: "The brain controls everything we do, say, feel and think. It controls the very functions that keep us alive including our breathing, circulation, digestion, hormones and immune system. The brain allows us to experience emotion and express ourselves. Damage to this vital organ can have far-reaching implications and significantly impact an individual's life and the lives of those around them for the rest of their lives.

"A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an insult to the brain caused by an external physical force that can produce a diminished or altered state of consciousness (such as a coma). A TBI can result in physical, psychological, behavioral or emotional impairments and may be temporary or permanent. It can cause partial or total disability. A TBI does not include degenerative (brain disease) or congenital (hereditary) injuries. Causes of TBIs include motor vehicle accidents, assaults, falls, sports injuries, bicycle and pedestrian accidents, and shaking babies."

The manual lists many interesting statistics, including: Every year, one and a half million Americans sustain a TBI, and more than 50,000 of them die. Alcohol is involved over half the time, and males ages 15 to 24 years old are at highest risk of a brain injury, because of their risk-taking behaviors and lifestyles. "Vehicle crashes are the primary cause of brain injury for all age groups."

The "Social Implications" of Traumatic Brain Injuries are stunning. The TBI Manual lists:

  • The divorce rate for individuals with a traumatic brain injury is significantly higher than for the rest of the population.
  • Loss of employment or not being able to hold a job is significantly higher than for the non-brain-injured population.
  • Social reasoning skills are diminished in individuals with brain injury. They may not be able to consider alternative approaches to a situation, are not able to plan ahead and may respond to a situation so that they may receive immediate gratification without thinking of the consequences of their actions. They may not be able to process more-long-term goals.
  • Judgment can change and they make poor decisions.
  • Social isolation is significant. Individuals withdraw from family, friends and others.
  • Participation in social activities can be one of the greatest challenges to people with brain injury. Social understanding and judgment involves complex thinking processes. Even several years post-injury, many people with traumatic brain injury continue to experience problems with social interactions. These social implications are startling and have devastating effects on the individual with a brain injury, family members, friends and others with whom the individual comes in contact. Brain injury affects countless people across the country every year. Many will experience social challenges for the rest of their lives.

If you know someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, get in touch with the New Mexico Brain Injury Advisory Council. They will help the TBI patient and their family get the help they need. They also give free copies of the TBI Manual, which is soon to be available in Spanish, in addition to English.

Robert (Tito) Meyer practices law in Las Cruces, representing people who have been injured in accidents and the families of people who have been killed in accidents, as well as family law including collaborative divorces. Contact him at tito@zianet.com, (505) 524-4540, (800) 610-0555, or PO Box 1628, Las Cruces, NM 88004. This column is not intended to provide legal advice to any specific person, or with respect to any particular problems or situations. To find a lawyer, call the State Bar of New Mexico referral service, (800) 876-6227.

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