Due to a rise in prescription drug overdoses, drug fatalities outnumbered motor vehicle fatalities for the first time in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday.
Drug-related deaths surpassed motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death in 2009, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killing at least 37,485 people nationwide that year. It is the first year that drugs have outnumbered traffic deaths since the government began tracking drug-induced deaths in 1979.
Although most major causes of preventable death are in decline in the U.S., drugs are the exception. The number of drug-induced fatalities has doubled in the last decade, according to the newspaper, causing one death every 14 minutes.
Public health experts attribute the alarming increase to the nation's growing prescription drug problem. Prescription medications for pain and anxiety are particularly potent and highly addictive, and they can be lethal if combined with alcohol or other narcotics.
OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax are the most commonly abused medications, according to the CDC data. Prescription drugs now kill more Americans each year than heroin and cocaine combined.
Almost half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug, the CDC reports. Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed drugs for middle-aged adults, while cholesterol-lowering medications are the most common prescriptions for older Americans.
Some of the increased drug fatalities are caused by accidental poisonings. A separate study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that the number of U.S. children who are accidentally poisoned by pharmaceuticals has risen, despite efforts to improve packaging safeguards.