During a 12-month period, 264 patients with multiple injuries who required mechanical ventilation were admitted to the surgical intensive care unit. One hundred twenty patients (46%) were disengaged from the ventilator, and 38 patients (14%) died. Of the remaining 106 patients (40%) 51 patients (group I) were to receive tracheostomy within 1 to 7 days, and 55 patients (group II) underwent late (8 or more days after admission) tracheostomy. Multiple variables in four categories (admission, operative, ventilatory, and outcome) were analyzed prospectively to define the impact that early tracheostomy had on duration of mechanical ventilation, intensive care stay, and hospital stay. Morbidity and mortality rates of the procedures were assessed. Early tracheostomy, in a homogeneous group of critically ill patients, is associated with a significant decrease in duration of mechanical ventilation, as well as shorter intensive care unit and hospital stays, compared with translaryngeal endotracheal intubation. There were no deaths attributable to tracheostomy, and overall morbidity of the procedures was 4%. We conclude that early tracheostomy has an overall risk equivalent to that of endotracheal intubation. Furthermore, early tracheostomy shortens days on the ventilator and intensive care unit and hospital days and should be considered for patients in the intensive care unit at risk for more than 7 days of intubation.