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This vehicle may be hazardous to your health

January 30, 2009 | 12:45 pm

Most people killed in accidents involving cars die the way you would expect -- smashing into another vehicle or other unyielding object while traveling on a public roadway. Those basic scenarios killed more than 41,000 people in the U.S. in 2007 and injured 2.5 million more.

But, as is often and depressingly the case with death and maiming, there's more. According to a new federal study, mishaps that involved cars but aren't classified as traffic accidents on public roads claimed the lives of more than 1,700 Americans in 2007 and injured an additional 841,000.

Nhtsalogocolor_2 Not surprisingly, about two-thirds of those deaths and about 10% of the injuries are caused by what NHTSA calls "nontraffic crashes," a statistical category that includes wrecks on nonpublic roads and in parking garages; accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists; and back-over incidents.

More intriguing is the breakdown of the various ways that vehicles kill and injure people in "noncrash incidents," which caused 588 deaths and 743,000 injuries in 2007.

Being crushed by a falling vehicle -- such as a car slipping off a jack during a DIY oil change -- was the leading cause of noncrash deaths. Unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning was No. 2. Other major threats included falling from vehicles, hypothermia (excessive cold) and hyperthermia (excessive heat).

On a lesser but arguably more gruesome scale, seven people were killed by exploding tires, five were strangled by windows, three died while locked in the trunk and two were scalded to death by overheated radiators.

The main reason the injury total for noncrash incidents is so much higher than for crashes is that it includes people who slammed their hands in a car door or were otherwise injured by a closing door (148,000), were injured unloading cargo or pushing a vehicle (88,000) or hurt themselves getting in or out of a vehicle (84,000).

NHTSA compiled the study only after being ordered to by Congress, and it's not hard to see why. Unlike highway crashes and other accidents on public roadways, information on the type of incidents tracked in this report is much harder to collect. After considering several approaches, the agency ultimately relied on a mixture of data gleaned from police reports, death certificates and hospital emergency room reports.

You can check out a two-page summary of the report's findings on the NHTSA website.

And, hey, let's be careful out there.

-- Martin Zimmerman

Logo credit: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration