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Accidental death rate creeping higher in U.S.

/ Source: The Associated Press

The nation’s accidental death rate has been gradually creeping higher and is up 12 percent compared to the lowest rate on record, in 1992, according to a report released Thursday by the National Safety Council.

The independent, nonprofit group warned that if the trend continues, the nation could surpass the all-time high of 116,385 accidental deaths, set in 1969.

From 1969 until 1992, the rate of accidental deaths — a number adjusted for population growth — steadily declined. The council credited seat belts and air bags in vehicles, smoke detectors in homes and stiff drunken driving laws with reducing deaths.

But ground is being lost because of increasing rates of falls among the elderly and accidental overdoses from legal and illegal drugs, said Alan McMillan, CEO of the National Safety Council. Meanwhile, deaths from workplace accidents and car crashes have been fairly stable.

Older motorcycle operators also add to the death toll, McMillan said. Thirty-five percent of motorcycle deaths in 2005 were among bikers age 45 and older. A decade earlier, 15 percent of biker deaths were among the older age group. Motorcycle deaths in 2005 totaled 4,232, more than double the number in 1995.

“We tend to see our home as our safe haven. The data tell us it’s not,” McMillan said, adding that families can take steps to protect the elderly from falls by removing hazards and installing stair rails and grab bars.

Deaths from falls climbed from 16,257 in 2002 to 17,229 in 2003, the most recent year for which data are available. The rate also went up, from 5.6 deaths to 5.9 deaths per 100,000 people.

Accidental poisoning deaths, mostly caused by medication or illegal drug overdoses, increased from 17,550 in 2002 to 19,457 in 2003. The rate climbed from 6.4 to 6.7 deaths per 100,000 people.

Leading causes of death

There were 113,000 accidental deaths in 2005, a 1 percent increase from the previous year, according to council estimates based on federal and state data.

Final 2005 numbers haven’t been released by the U.S. government yet, and the council used state data to reach its estimates for 2005. The death rate remained at 38.1 per 100,000 population because the population also increased.

Motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of accidental deaths, are up only slightly from 2004 to 2005, according to council estimates.

Massachusetts had the lowest accidental death rate at 20.6 deaths per 100,000 people, and New Mexico had the highest accidental death rate at 65.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

For younger people, dying in a car crash was the most frequent cause of accidental death; poisonings topped or tied car crashes among people in their 40s and falls were the leading cause of accidental deaths among the elderly.

Accidents are the fifth leading cause of death behind heart disease, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease, the council said. But for people ages 1 to 44, accidents are the top killer.

The nonprofit group, based in the Chicago suburb of Itasca, estimates accidental deaths and injuries cost the nation $625.5 billion in 2005, including wage and productivity losses, medical expenses and motor vehicle damage.

The National Safety Council has tracked unintentional injuries and deaths since the 1920s and publishes the Journal of Safety Research, an international, peer-reviewed journal, five times a year.