Although our culture is often accused of being obsessed with thinness, in reality we’re a nation that suffers from a growing epidemic of obesity. This dichotomy often results in social disadvantages for people who are overweight. Of course, being obese also comes with physical setbacks that have little to do with perception. Health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are just a few risks of being at least 20 percent over the ideal body weight for a person’s height and build. But a new study presents yet another disadvantage.

The study concluded that obese people have a higher risk of dying in a car accident. Using data culled from the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the study’s researchers examined car accidents that were reported in the years from 1996 to 2008, a total of 57,491 crashes. They singled out collisions involving two passenger cars, specifically those with similar shapes and sizes. All of the accidents the researchers examined involved the death of at least one driver. Just under half the drivers studied were of average weight, while 33 percent were overweight and 18 percent were considered obese.

The study concluded that the most obese drivers — those with a body mass index of 40 or greater — were 80 percent more likely to die in a car accident than people of a normal weight. Slightly less obese people — having a BMI of 35 to 39.9 — were just over 50 percent more likely to die. Even the lowest level of obesity carries a 21 percent higher risk of death in a car accident.

What’s the root cause of the risk? The study’s researchers believe that in a collision, an obese driver’s lower body is launched forward before the seat belt reaches the pelvis, while the upper body is restrained. This reaction can cause fatal injuries. It’s also possible that existing health problems contributed to obese accident victims’ death. Furthermore, many obese drivers and passengers may not wear a seat belt if it’s very uncomfortable or doesn’t fit properly.

Given these findings, it may be time for car makers to examine the way seat belts and car seats are designed to ensure that all drivers and passengers are equally protected from serious injury or death in the event of a collision.

Source: CBS News, “Obese drivers more likely to die in car accidents, study finds,” Michelle Castillo, Jan. 22, 2013