By KATIE MOISSE
Sept. 20, 2011
Drugs now kill more people than motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. -- a monumental shift that reflects gains in road safety amid a troubling rise in prescription drug abuse.
This is first time that drugs have caused more deaths than motor vehicle accidents since the government started tracking drug-related deaths in 1979. Bob Anderson, chief of the CDC's mortality statistic branch, said the swing is bittersweet.
"On one hand the motor vehicle death rate has been going down, and I think that's important in and of itself," said Anderson, crediting the bulk of the drop to speed limits and seatbelt laws. "On other hand, we've seen a fairly steep rise in drug-related deaths, and the rise is mostly due to drug overdose."
Drug overdoses and brain damage linked to long-term drug abuse killed an estimated 37,485 people in 2009, the latest year for which preliminary data are available, surpassing the toll of traffic accidents by 1,201. And the number is likely to rise as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepares to release its official statistics in December.
Dr. Leonard Paulozzi, medical epidemiologist at the CDC's division of unintentional injury prevention, said prescription drugs were driving up the death toll.
"There has been a dramatic increase in use of prescription drugs as physicians have become more liberal in prescribing them," said Paulozzi, adding that the bulk of drug-related deaths stems from accidental opioid painkiller overdoses. "And with the decrease in the motor vehicle crash mortality rate, drug-induced deaths have now passed motor vehicle crash deaths."