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September 29, 2001

Pregnant drivers far more likely to crash car: study

First trimester worst

Julie Smyth
National Post

Pregnant women have an increased risk of being killed or injured in road accidents, research in Quebec and Norway suggests.

The findings, based on nearly two decades of studies, could lead to recommendations that expectant mothers stop driving.

The researchers found a strong link between the number of pregnant women and an increase in accidents, particularly fatal crashes, even when factors such as weather and speed were taken into consideration. The link was strongest among women in their first three months of pregnancy.

Marc Gaudry, an economics professor and director of a transportation research group at the Université de Montréal believes pregnant women are more accident-prone because of hormonal changes and increased drowsiness.

He cited studies of rats where the animals had a reduced ability to perform learned mechanical tasks such as working their way through a maze after being injected with hormones that made them artificially pregnant. The rats were able to relearn the tasks when later injected with male hormones that reversed the effect.

"There has to be a link to pregnant women's ability to do mechanical tasks. If you become clumsy at the wheel, you might kill yourself," said Mr. Gaudry.

Mr. Gaudry looked at accidents dating back to 1984 and compared them with the number of women who were pregnant at the time in the population at large. "When there were more women pregnant in the first, second and third months, there were more accidents of all kinds -- from fatal ones to minor ones. The link was strongest with serious accidents," said Mr. Gaudry, whose research was funded by the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec, the provincial government's insurance agency, and Transport Canada.

He looked at 25 other factors affecting accidents and concluded the relationship to pregnancy was not random. He said medical doctors advising him on the studies suggested the correlation was strongest in the first three months of pregnancy because the women's partners tended to do more of the driving once the pregnancy has reached the fourth month.

The Quebec findings are supported by studies in Norway that have found a similar link between accidents and pregnancy. Following an initial study in 1997 by a Norwegian doctor, the government ordered a review of all motor accidents involving women during the previous 25 years to see if they were pregnant at the time.

The researchers have been given access to individual medical files and accident statistics for thousands of women in the country.

The results, which Mr. Gaudry said he understands confirm the high risk factor for pregnant women, are expected to be made public by January.

"With the new Norwegian data, you could say doctors should give warnings to pregnant women," said Mr. Gaudry.

Dr. Arthur Zaltz, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, said he is skeptical of the findings. He said hormonal changes in pregnancy can cause instability in the ligaments and joints and make women clumsier. Pregnancy can also cause increased tiredness. However, he said the same is true of night shift workers or overworked doctors.

"I would take these findings with a major grain of salt. We have enough problems with drunk drivers on the road. We shouldn't focus on banning pregnant women from driving."

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