Statement: “For the second year in a row, prescription drugs remain the leading cause of accidental death in the county — topping the total number of deaths from fatal car crashes,” county Supervisor Pam Slater-Price and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis wrote in a letter published by U-T San Diego Aug. 23.

Determination: True

Analysis: Despite a recent push by local authorities to raise awareness about prescription drug abuse, the number of accidental deaths attributed to medication has continued to rise in San Diego County.

Slater-Price and Dumanis, two of the loudest voices on the issue, recently highlighted the trend in a joint letter published by U-T San Diego. They described a growing problem and called for additional state funding to monitor doctors and their drug prescriptions.

One statistic in their letter caught our eye. They wrote: “For the second year in a row, prescription drugs remain the leading cause of accidental death in the county — topping the total number of deaths from fatal car crashes.”

That’s true, according to figures contained in an annual report by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, which tracks the cause of unnatural deaths. This graphic illustrates the number of motor vehicle fatalities, prescription drug-related deaths and other accidental deaths since 2000:

The trends above aren’t unique to San Diego. The number of deaths attributed to medication has been rising across the nation while the number of deaths attributed to traffic accidents has been falling.

The Los Angeles Times examined the diverging trends through an analysis of national death databases last year. Here’s a key excerpt from its report about some of the factors behind safer roads:

The triumph of public health policies that have improved traffic safety over the years through the use of seat belts, air bags and other measures stands in stark contrast to the nation’s record on prescription drugs. Even though more people are driving more miles, traffic fatalities have dropped by more than a third since the early 1970s to 36,284 in 2009. Drug-induced deaths had equaled or surpassed traffic fatalities in California, 22 other states and the District of Columbia even before the 2009 figures revealed the shift at the national level, according to the Times analysis.

In San Diego, prescription drug-related deaths have been climbing over the past decade but the issue started to gain more attention four years ago. Local authorities reported pharmacy robberies for the first time, which other cities reported preceding a spike in abuse. Health officials across the county also warned about a rise in people seeking drug treatment.

Officials especially raised concern about increasing abuse of powerful prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin. They feared users would become addicted and eventually expand their habit to street drugs like heroin that can produce a similar high.

In response, county officials organized a task force to research prescription drug abuse, participated in a television special hosted by KUSI and used social media like Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness about the danger of abusing medications.

Law enforcement officials also set up special trash containers through the county so people could clean out their medicine cabinets of unneeded drugs. The task force believed reducing access to drugs — especially among teens — would help shrink the illicit drug market and cut down on abuse.

In their letter, Slater-Price and Dumanis didn’t say whether these efforts have so far been successful. They pointed to a continued rise and argued more needs to be done.

“Collaboration has been, and will continue to be, the key to turning the tide and reducing the number of San Diegans who are dying as a result of the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem,” they wrote.

Since annual statistics back up the comparison in accidental deaths that Slater-Price and Dumanis described, we’ve rated their statement True. If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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