The medicine cabinet is the new car -- at least when it comes to causes of accidental deaths in the United States.

Analysis by Marianne English 


Drug-related accidental deaths have officially outnumbered those caused by car accidents for the first time since the government began collecting data on the behavior in the late 1970s, according an analysis by the Los Angeles Times.

Until now, car accidents posed the greatest accidental danger. But as preliminary data from 2009 trickle in, the numbers have already surpassed car fatalities in 2009 for Americans, despite an increase in drivers and total time driving.

In 2009 alone, some 37,500 Americans succumbed to drug overdoses, many fueled by prescription drug abuse or a combination of mixing medications with each other, alcohol or recreational drugs.

This is compared to approximately 33,800 deaths from car accidents that same year, as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Similar claims were made from 2006 data, but only in a handful of states.

The newspaper reported "OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and Soma" as primary aggressors that led to the bulk of accidental deaths, even surpassing fatalities associated with drugs like heroin that typically take blame for dangerous drug use. In the year studied, deaths rose the most among teens and young adults. But adults of all ages seemed to show an increase, too.

Some credit the wider availability of medications, including prescription pain killers and drugs to curb anxiety, as well as pushy pharmaceutical companies for advertising their products into the hands of more and more people.

But one questions what the trend really means. Could it be that car fatalities simply dropped, or that drug-related deaths are truly on the rise?

The answer lies in a combination of both. For one, effective road safety programs have cut car deaths significantly, experts say, which explains the drop. On the other hand, there's been a noticeable increase in fatalities associated with drug overdosing over the past decade.

Halting prescription drug abuse will take work, and programs have started to encourage people to return unused pills and provide better training to doctors working on the frontlines with patients, according to the article.


Still, the data only include accidental deaths, which may account for some off-record suicides, too. But, as pointed out in one Time blog post, it's not the patients being prescribed such medications that are having the most issues, it's the people buying and using them recreationally.

So are prescription drugs America's new threat?

For accidental deaths -- certainly. Overall -- hardly. Heart disease, along with other health problems, remains the country's No. 1 killer with roughly 616,000 deaths each year, according to government estimates.

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