Thursday, December 12, 2001
A time for Christmas joy, celebration, safety

By Dr. Anthony Policastro
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital

Tis the season to be jolly. Christmas is time of joy and celebration. It is also a time to think about safety. Therefore, I will provide my annual Christmas safety message.
There are four major areas for you to think about to keep your Christmas safe. The first one deals with holiday travel. Many of us will soon visit our relatives. We should prepare for cold weather traveling. It may be hard to think of cold weather this year. It has been unseasonably warm. However, winter will soon be here. With it will come the problems of winter travel. Cars can break down. When that happens in the winter, we need to be ready. You should check your wintertime car accessories.

The first thing that you should ensure is warmth. A car that is stuck in the cold may lose its heater. You should have the appropriate amount of warm clothes and blankets available until help arrives. People sometimes do not bring a coat with them. They figure they are going straight from the house to the car so they do not need a coat. They do not expect to get stranded somewhere in the cold. You should have clothing appropriate for the weather.
The second requirement is to have the right emergency equipment. Some of this takes the form of car accessories. This may be a window scraper, snow tires or proper coolant in the radiator. The rest is in the form of items for breakdowns. Flashlights are important. Warning flares or reflectors are useful. A shovel for snow is a good idea. Most people forget this one. A shovel that can also dig up dirt to put under the tires is even more useful. Whenever you travel, you should think about what you would need if you broke down. Once you do that, make sure you stock your car accordingly.

Another auto-related item is drinking and driving. Alcohol-related car accidents increase significantly during the holiday season. If you are driving, donít drink. If you are drinking, donít drive. You also should remember to drive defensively. The other guy may not listen to these rules. If someone is driving like an idiot, he probably is drunk. Do not try to challenge him or her. Some of our relatives live at great distances. We may drive too far. This could make us tired. Do not drive when you are tired. Make sure you are well rested when you drive. Pull over if you become tired.

One rule to follow is that you should not spend more than 12 hours per day driving. If you are going farther than that, you should allow more time. A lot of us have a tendency to speed. This is especially true on long trips. Speeding increases our risk for accidents. An important question to ask yourself is what does speeding actually accomplish.
I drive home on River Road. I frequently have people pass me. There is only about a mile to the Woodland Ferry. The road ends there. If I am doing 40 mph, it will take me 90 seconds to get there. If they do 60 mph, they get there in 60 seconds. I wonder what they do with the extra 30 seconds they save. Even if I was traveling for 3 hours, it would make little difference. Someone going 10 mph faster than I would get there 30 minutes sooner. I wonder how productive that extra 30 minutes would be when he/she arrives. Whatever it is will not be worth the risk they have of getting in an accident from speeding.

Even staying home can be dangerous. Christmas tree fires can occur. If we decide upon a live tree, we should be careful. Cut off the base so the tree can take water in more effectively. Make sure the tree stays moist. Be careful about leaving lights on too long so the tree does not get too hot. This is especially true when it starts to dry out. Do not put candles or open flames near the tree. Do not put your tree up near the fireplace. Christmas plants are beautiful. They are also dangerous. Keep them away from young children.
Holly and mistletoe are poisonous. They cause vomiting and diarrhea when eaten. Holly berries cause narcotic overdose symptoms. Mistletoe berries produce a digitalis poisoning. Poinsettia sap can irritate the skin.

A third area of holiday safety considerations is gift giving. Safety gifts are a great idea. The best example is a bicycle helmet. Now that this is a law, it makes the ideal Christmas present. Many pairs of in-line skates will be under the tree this year. It makes sense to also give the appropriate padding equipment. Studies have shown that the injury rate decreases with this equipment. It is important. Another gift idea is a cellular telephone. This would be a good accessory for your car when traveling. It would get you help very quickly. However, it is risky to talk on the phone when driving. You should pull over when using one. In addition, there may be risks to childrenís growing brains from cellular phones. They do not make good gifts for adolescents for that reason.
There are also some gifts that are bad ideas. One of these is the trampoline. The American Academy of Pediatrics has proposed that they be banned. They serve little exercise value and they are very dangerous. Paralysis from neck injury is common. Even trained athletes suffer these injuries. Untrained children are even more likely to be injured. My recommendation is to scratch it off your gift list.
Another concern is buying an item that a child is not old enough to use. We do not allow children to drive cars until they are 16 years old. This is based more on intellectual abilities than physical abilities. We should use the same logic for other dangerous gifts. Pellet guns and all terrain vehicles probably should only be given to a child who is mature intellectually. Age alone should not be the sole criterion. After a child get seriously injured from one of these items, it will be too late to think about it.
Many gifts come with instruction booklets. Most of these booklets have a section that lists safety instructions. The book will tell you to read that first. It is a good idea to do so. Some toys are not safe for young children. Read the boxes carefully to make sure the toys are age appropriate.

The Christmas holidays are made to spread joy and peace. We need to spread safety as well. Only if you are alive and healthy can you be joyful and peaceful as well.

Dr. Anthony Policastro is medical director at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital.