Opioids Faulted as Preventable Mishaps Cost $850 Billion

(Bloomberg) -- More than 130,000 Americans are killed annually by preventable causes, and the number has been climbing at a faster rate recently because of opioid abuse and car crashes involving drivers distracted by mobile devices.

The death count jumped more than 7 percent in 2015 to about 146,600, according to a report by the National Safety Council Tuesday.

The council said lawmakers often overlook simple solutions that could avoid deaths on the roads or in people’s homes, while public attention is focused on events that are relatively rare in the U.S., like terrorist attacks or plane crashes. Vehicle mishaps and poisonings, driven by opioid abuse, killed more than 80,000 people combined in 2015. Preventable accidents cost society about $850 billion a year, according to the group.

“Culturally, we’re numb to these things,” NSC President Deborah Hersman said in a phone interview. “Why are these deaths any less tragic or important? We should be talking about these things every day because they affect our families.”

The toll from opioids is worsening, partly because so many patients become dependent on painkillers, often turning to street drugs like heroin. Almost one in four people on Medicaid, the U.S. health program for the poor, received powerful and addictive opioid pain medicines in 2015, Express Scripts Holding Co. said this month.

The council said lawmakers should tighten oversight of the distribution of prescription medications and improve access to drugs that can reverse overdoses and treat addiction. The group also said states should pass stricter laws on speeding and distracted driving, require barriers around residential swimming pools, and demand increased use of smoke alarms and sprinklers to protect against fires.

Eleven states, including Arizona and South Carolina, were given failing grades by the council for insufficient efforts to curb preventable deaths. No states were given an A, the best potential score.

California was among seven states that earned a B rating. The NSC credited efforts there to restrict teenage driving and increase seat belt usage. New York and New Jersey got C grades. Montana, which got a failing grade, does too little to stop drunk and distracted motorists, according to the report.

‘White-Knuckled Flyers’

“We don’t have people who approach driving with the same reservations as they do boarding a plane,” said Hersman, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “A lot of people get very nervous about getting on an airplane. They’re white-knuckled flyers, but the most dangerous part of their trip is their drive to the airport.”

She said there’s a sense of complacency among lawmakers and citizens that unintentional, fatal injuries are “just accidents,” so nothing can be done. In fact, efforts to promote seat belt usage and prevent drunkenness behind the wheel helped reduce death rates for years, though the risk of distracted driving has climbed recently with the availability of more mobile devices. Higher speed limits also add risk.

“We need to make distracted driving socially unacceptable,” Tom Goeltz, whose daughter Megan was killed in a car crash last year, said at a news conference held by the NSC Tuesday. “This tragedy could have easily been prevented.”

Goeltz, a Minnesotan who works to help industrial companies avoid accidents, said his daughter was pregnant when her car was struck by a distracted driver.

“As a safety consultant with over 30 years of experience, I was powerless to save my daughter,” he said. “We all know people that have been killed on our roads. We all know somebody. How is this acceptable to us? We need to do more. You don’t want to be a part of this club.”

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit started in 1913, released the report to coincide with National Safety Month in June. Over the course of nearly a year, the group collected data from each state on causes of death and the effectiveness of safety laws.

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