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More Than Ever, Americans Are Dying By Accident

The National Safety Council says more Americans are dying by accident, and opioid abuse is one of the leading causes.
Toby Talbot
The National Safety Council says more Americans are dying by accident, and opioid abuse is one of the leading causes.

A record number of Americans are dying by accident and increasingly because of fatal overdoses and falls, and not so much in car crashes.

A new report from the National Safety Council shows more than 136,000 people in the U.S. died accidentally in 2014, the highest number ever recorded. That's an increase of 4.2 percent from the year before and 15.5 percent more than a decade ago.

The higher accidental death rate is being fueled in large part by the opioid and heroin epidemic.

Overdose and accidental poisoning is now the leading cause of accidental death, killing more than 42,000 people in 2014, according to the NSC report. That's quadruple the number of poisoning deaths in 1998. Motor vehicle crashes killed 35,398 in 2014, 22 percent fewer than a decade ago and down sharply from a high of more than 53,000 in 1980.

Experts point to safer vehicles, improved safety technology in cars, and changes in drivers licensing requirements for teens, such as graduated licenses as reasons for the decline.

"Far fewer teenagers and young adults are dying on the roads than they were in 1981," says Ken Kolosh, statistics manager for the National Safety Council. But he says driving under the influence of alcohol, speeding and not wearing seat belts remain persistent problems leading to some 10,000 crash fatalities a year.

Distracted driving, because of cell phones and other portable electronic devices, is increasingly a significant problem, too, but Kolosh says there is not a lot of good data on how it contributes to accidents.

"Distraction related crashes are very under-reported," says Kolosch. "It's very difficult for police officers at the time of a crash investigation to get accurate information about the level of distraction at the time of the crash."

The number of people dying from falls, such as slipping on a bathroom or kitchen floor, has also jumped significantly higher in recent years, from under 10,000 deaths in 1992 to close to 32,000 in 2014. Experts point to an aging baby boom population in the U.S., and the fact that more people are living much longer.

"We have more older adults who are at much greater risk for falls," says Kolosch.

Kolosch says, "Every individual has the opportunity to make choices to keep themselves safe," such as buckling their seat belt, not looking at their phone while driving, or installing safety rails in bathrooms to prevent falls.

But he also says society and governments can do more reduce the high number of non-intentional injuries and deaths, whether it's in how doctors prescribe pain medications, police enforce drunken driving and seat belt laws or legislatures reduce, instead of raise highway speed limits.

"It's all preventable. Every accident is preventable," says Kolosch. "But it's not necessarily the [fault] of the victim."

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David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.