The death rate for opioid use has surpassed car crashes in the US

Less risky.
Less risky.
Image: Reuters/Ann Wang
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According to a new report from the US National Safety Council, accidental deaths from opioids overtook deaths from car crashes in 2017.

Since 1999, the number of opioid-overdose deaths per 100,000 people has steadily increased, while the rate of car-crash deaths has decreased. In 2017, opioids killed 43,036 Americans, compared to 40,231 in car crashes. The opioid crisis is now so severe, it’s causing overall life expectancy of Americans to fall.

The latest report, based on mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics, found that the odds of dying of heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in the US, are one in six and one in seven, respectively.

Neither of those are considered “preventable” causes of death by the report, which noted that in 2017, there were 169,936 deaths that could have been prevented—an increase of 5.3% from last year, and almost double the number of preventable deaths 25 years ago. In 2017, the odds of dying via suicide were one in 88, and the odds of dying as a result of opioids were one in 96. The odds of dying in a car crash were one in 103. (This figure excludes pedestrian deaths. The lifetime odds of dying in a pedestrian incident are one in 556.)

Ken Kolosh, the manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, told NPR that although the total odds of dying are one in one, it should be possible to lower the accidental death rate to zero.

The decrease in the death rate from car crashes is a sign of progress. As Vox reported in 2014, it’s a result of better technology within cars to help them avoid crashes, like electronic stability control to detect skidding, fewer drunk drivers, and fewer miles driven in total. Improved adherence to seatbelt may also be a factor; Kolosh noted that roughly half of the car-crash deaths involved people not wearing seat belt. Death rates from car crashes could fall even further if the tech industry is right on its bet that autonomous vehicles will eliminate driver error, which causes the vast majority of car crashes.

Meanwhile, the opioid crisis in the US is only getting worse. The National Safety Council does have some ideas how to alleviate that problem: a separate report from the council recommended that states should set guidelines for when providers prescribe opioids to patients, and should make addiction treatment and naloxone—a drug which reverses opioid overdoses—easier to access.