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Clogged arteries: the unseen cost of road-blocking protests

STAT by Anupam B. Jena


Recent events in Israel and Gaza have sparked a wave of protests, with some activists in major cities using a familiar tactic: obstructing traffic.


While this seems to have been an effective strategy by protesters across the political spectrum to draw attention to a variety of issues in recent years — including racial injustice, climate change, and pandemic restrictions — these protests raise an important question: At what cost do these disruptions come?


Speaking to the Los Angeles Times about a demonstration disrupting traffic at the Los Angeles airport recently, Michael Beer, the director of Nonviolence International, said that it can be hard for protesters to cut through the media environment without disruptive action like blocking traffic. He then added, “But you have to think: Are you stopping the ambulance from getting to a hospital and somebody’s going to die?”

Research on road closures suggests the answer is probably yes.


A study by one of us examining the impact of road closures brought on by marathons in major cities found that death rates for elderly patients with major cardiac emergencies — like heart attacks or cardiac arrest — were 13.3% higher on marathon days compared with typical days. The best explanation for this finding? Ambulances took longer to get patients to the hospital. The study found that the average time required by ambulances to transport patients to the hospital increased by about 32% on marathon days.


Christopher Worsham and Anupam B. Jena are physicians and researchers at Harvard Medical School. They are authors of “Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients and Shape Our Health” and the Random Acts of Medicine newsletter.


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