February 2003 Bulletin

Dedicated transportation safety advocate honored

Oregon traffic-related morbidity/mortality reduced by thousands

By Carolyn Rogers

In recognition of years of tenacious transportation safety advocacy in his home state of Oregon—efforts which resulted in demonstrably reduced traffic-related morbidity and mortality in that state—2002 AAOS President Vernon T. Tolo, MD, presented John R. Tongue, MD, with the fourth annual AAOS Humanitarian Award during the Feb. 5, 2003 opening ceremonies of the Academy’s 70th Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Each year, the Academy acknowledges an orthopaedic surgeon who has gone to extraordinary lengths to make a positive impact on the lives and health of many people with the AAOS Humanitarian Award.

Seat belt saved his life

Dr. Tongue learned the benefits of seat belts the hard way. As a high school student in 1963, he was hit broadside by another vehicle while driving a compact car. His car rolled over several times upon impact. A police officer at the scene of the accident told him that his seat belt had saved his life.

Although his life was spared, Dr. Tongue says, "It was the most frightening day of my life. I wanted to prevent anyone of that age from experiencing anything like it."

Twenty years later, Dr. Tongue, now an orthopaedic surgeon in Tualatin, Ore., became a tenacious advocate for transportation safety issues and affected major change among the three main causes of traffic injuries and fatalities: lack of safety belt use, drunk driving and excessive speed.

While the memories of that long-ago accident remained in the back of his mind, Dr. Tongue says the facts of the safety belt issue are what spurred his involvement. "I could see the data, I knew what seat belts could do," he says.

"Tireless" seat belt campaign pays off

Driven by that knowledge, Dr. Tongue founded the Oregon Lifebelt Committee to create and pass a mandatory seat belt law in 1983. In spite of six defeats in the Oregon legislature and a loss at the polls, Tongue’s six years of tireless campaigning paid off in November 1990 when more than 600,000 Oregonians passed the only state safety belt law by a vote of its people.

"When I began working on transportation issues in 1983, Oregon’s seat belt use rate was 19 percent," said Dr. Tongue. "Now it’s 91 percent. We have the strongest law in the nation."

Dr. Tongue was able to make this law a reality by developing a base of 2,000 volunteers, gathering 80,000 signatures (8,000 of which he collected himself) and raising over $500,000 in funds.

At the 10th anniversary of the law in December 2000, the Oregon Department of Transportation stated that over 1,500 lives have been saved and over 270,000 Oregonians spared from injuries as a result of the seat belt law.

Anti-drunk driving efforts

Dr. Tongue also founded Pledge America, a nonprofit organization committed to educating civic organizations in the Northwest about the dangers of drunk driving and enlisting their audiences to make a pledge to not drink and drive. As an active member of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on driving under the influence of intoxicants (1982-1995), Tongue helped pass 14 new drunk driving laws. The reduction in the rate of drunk driving and fatal crashes in Oregon in that time is estimated to be between 20 and 30 percent.

In 1985, the Oregon Medical Association (OMA) awarded Dr. Tongue with the Doctor-Citizen of the Year Award for his drunk driving prevention efforts.

Successfully opposed higher speed limits

Today, Oregon is the only Western state not to raise rural interstate speed limits—in part due to Dr. Tongue’s vigorous opposition of increased speed limits as chair of the Oregon Transportation Committee. This dedication was recognized in 2001 when he received the Oregon Transportation Safety Award from the Oregon Department of Transportation in acknowledgement of his efforts opposing bills that would have raised posted highway speeds.

"Thousands" saved

"What makes Dr. Tongue notable as a true humanitarian is that his unstinting commitment of time, energy and enormous expertise has demonstrably reduced traffic-related morbidity and mortality in Oregon by literally thousands—more than any five orthopaedic surgeons could hope to achieve in long careers in the operating room," says James A. Kronenberg, OMA associate executive director.

Dr. Tongue believes orthopaedic surgeons have unique qualifications to recognize and solve problems in their communities.

"We communicate with the public all day, we work hard to evaluate problems and help patients, and we spend a lot of time on risk-benefit analysis," he says. "If we apply these qualifications to problems in the community, we can create positive change."

In honor of Dr. Tongue’s commitment to transportation safety in Oregon, the AAOS will donate $5,000 to the Oregon Transportation Safety Division.

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