For over a decade, I have been studying all the ways Americans accidentally die.
It may sound morbid; tracking mortality trends is not at the top of many people’s list of job searches. But I always have approached my statistical research at the National Safety Council as preventative and considered it a key component of change. After all, we cannot address a problem if we do not fully understand its scope. While every figure represents a life lost, it also represents an opportunity to reexamine our approach to certain safety issues. Statistics are often complex, and much of my job is focused on helping people better understand the trends and the risks we face as we live our lives.
Experts will ask me whether we are doing enough to ensure these deaths are a thing of the past. I ask myself just that every time I perform analysis. The batch of data from CDC that recently came across my desk gave that question a new sense of urgency.
The data are clear: Americans are dying from accidents at unprecedented numbers.
In the 100+ years the Council has been tracking data around accidental – unintentional, preventable – deaths, we have never reached the level we are at today. More than 161,000 Americans died accidentally in 2016 – from a drug overdose, a motor vehicle crash, a fall, a drowning, a fire-related incident or from some other preventable event. Accidental death is at an all-time high, eclipsing stroke, homicide, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and chronic lower respiratory disease. Only heart disease and cancer claim more lives each year. Although it is true, based on death rates, that Americans are safer today than in the early 1900s, death rates have been steadily rising since 1992.
It is the most sobering data I ever have analyzed during my tenure as a researcher. It also seems counterintuitive when you consider the environment we live in today. Medicine, vehicle technology and injury prevention strategies are more advanced than ever. The data are easier to process, though, when we start to look at each type of accidental injury and then ask ourselves truthfully if we are doing enough to curb these deaths.
For example, the unprecedented rise in accidental death is fueled primarily by the increase in opioid-involved drug overdoses. NSC has been tracking the upward trend in opioid-related deaths since 1999, when we first identified a troubling trend showing an uptick in poisonings deaths among middle-aged Americans. Ever since, we have watched the body count quadruple, with the rise paralleling increases in opioid prescribing. Without a similar increase in access to treatment, too many people struggling with opioid addictions have succumbed to the drugs’ worst possible side effect: death.
Motor vehicle-related deaths have increased too. They now are the second leading cause of accidental death, behind drug overdose. Our cars are safer than ever before; they are built to withstand crashes and mitigate damage – both to the human and the machine. However, we lost more than 40,300 people in 2016 to motor vehicle crashes – a 14 percent increase in deaths since 2014 and the first time since 2007 that more than 40,000 have been killed on our roadways.
Falls, particularly among older adults, have shot up 4 percent in a single year, and 160 percent since 1999. Part of the increase is due to changes in how we code fall-related deaths. However, with the baby boomer generation growing older, this number will only continue rising.
Can you look at any of these leading causes of accidental death and truly say we are doing enough to save lives?
The answer is unequivocally “no.”
Injury prevention never has had a silver bullet. Such a thing does not exist for such complicated issues. However, injury prevention always has had a dedicated cadre of professionals searching for solutions and reexamining ways to address persistent problems. They have identified many over the last several years – too numerous to mention here, and all of which can save lives. Some of these professionals are my colleagues at the Council, and I would highly recommend the various resources they’ve created to help solve the opioid crisis, stem motor vehicle deaths and increase fall prevention. You can find all the information and materials you need at nsc.org.
So while we may not have a definitive blueprint for saving lives, we do have definitive data to serve as our north star, keeping us on course. I sincerely hope we use it to inform all our efforts to save lives.
Most important, I hope to never come across such heartbreaking data again. If we heed it, the numbers should galvanize everyone – lawmakers, public health professionals, safety experts, and everyday Americans – to work overtime for change.
That will make my job as a statistics analyst much more rewarding.