If Traffic Deaths Were Rising, Would the Los Angeles Times Be Less Alarmed?


The Los Angeles Times reports that "drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States," the first time that has happened since the CDC began tracking drug-related deaths in 1979. The Times says drugs killed 37,485 people in 2009, compared to 36,284 who died in traffic accidents. One reason drugs are winning is that "traffic fatalities have dropped by more than a third since the early 1970s," even as the number of miles driven has more than doubled. (The number of deaths per 100 million miles driven fell dramatically between 1970 and 2009, from more than five to about one.) By contrast, drug deaths have been rising during the last decade, mainly due to prescription drug overdoses or fatal combinations.

Over all, these dual trends represent a decided improvement, since many people die in car crashes through no fault of their own, as passengers, pedestrians, or nonculpable drivers. By contrast, drug-related fatalities typically involve reckless behavior by the decedent, who either takes too much or carelessly combines depressants. The examples cited by the Times include "a 19-year-old Army recruit" who "took a handful of Xanax and painkillers while partying with friends" and "a San Diego woman found dead with a Fentanyl patch on her body, one of five she'd applied in the 24 hours before her death." As tragedies go, these are regrettable, but they pale beside an old lady run down at an intersection or a toddler killed by a drunk driver.

That is not the way the Times sees it, of course. "Public health experts," it says, "have used the comparison [between the two fatality trends] to draw attention to the nation's growing prescription drug problem, which they characterize as an epidemic." Is there any problem that "public health experts" don't "characterize as an epidemic"? In this case, as in many others, the label disguises the reality of people deliberately putting themselves in harm's way. After all, there is no communicable microbe that compels people to wash down Vicodin with booze or swallow a handful of assorted pills randomly retrieved from a bowl at a party.

But the problem, according to the Times and pretty much every other mainstream news outlet, is that doctors trust their patients too much: During the last decade or so, they have gone from being inappropriately stingy with painkillers and other psychoative prescription drugs to being excessively generous, thereby feeding "a thriving black market" that caters to addicts and thrill seekers. "Prescription drugs are traded on Internet chat rooms that buzz with offers of 'vikes,' 'percs' and 'oxys' for $10 to $80 a pill," the Times reports with alarm. Such breathless descriptions are rather misleading: According to the government's drug use surveys, most people who use prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes get them "from a friend or relative for free." In any case, because pain cannot be objectively verified, there is no systematic way of preventing unauthorized use without also preventing legitimate patients from getting the treatment they need. There is an unavoidable tradeoff here between relieving the suffering of innocents and saving people from their own stupidity, and the morally correct choice should be obvious.