Overdose Deaths Overtake Traffic Toll

By Jeff Forester 09/19/11

Drugs are now out-killing cars nationwide, reveals the latest data, but illegal substances aren't the chief culprits.

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Grim drug toll leaves traffic behind. Photo via

For the first time overdose deaths outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States. The havoc isn't driven primarily by Afghan smack or Mexican ecstasy, however, but by common prescription pain medications and anti-anxiety drugs. A total of 37,485 lives were claimed by drugs in 2009, according to preliminary data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the first time drug deaths have outnumbered traffic fatalities across the US since records began in 1979, although it's already been true of certain regions. Companies began aggressively marketing narcotic pain medications like Vicodin and Oxycontin about a decade ago—and doctors, anxious to help patients feel better, duly wrote the scripts. The death toll has doubled since then. Vicodin is now the most prescribed and abused drug in the nation, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency. Oxy, Xanax, Soma and relative-newcomer Fentanyl also figure highly, with the risks greatly increased for people who take them in combination with alcohol or other drugs. "People feel they are safer with prescription drugs because you get them from a pharmacy and they are prescribed by a doctor," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Opferman told the Los Angeles Times. Victims across all demographic groups, who consistently underestimate how dangerous these legal drugs can be, are fast adding to the kinds of statistics highlighted by last month's International Overdose Awareness Day. "What's really scary is we don't know a lot about how to reduce prescription deaths," said Amy S.B. Bohnert, a researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School. "It's a wonderful medical advancement that we can treat pain, but we haven't figured out the safety belt yet."

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.

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