"More people now die in Wisconsin from drug overdoses than car crashes."

Brad Schimel on Monday, June 6th, 2016 in an opinion piece

Do more people die in Wisconsin from overdoses than car crashes?

Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Wisconsin Republican, has made combating overdose deaths a key part of his tenure. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Michael Sears)

More than a month after Prince died at the age of 57, toxicology tests determined the visionary musician’s cause of death: fentanyl, a synthetic opiate up to 50 times more potent than heroin.

On June 6, 2016, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel penned a guest column in the Wisconsin State Journal connecting Prince’s overdose to the state’s opiate epidemic.

He sought to end to the stigma around drug addiction — and urged people to lock up prescription painkillers in their homes. Painkillers are often the starting point for people who develop opiate addictions.

"We must alter our view of opiates," Schimel wrote. "More people now die in Wisconsin from drug overdoses than car crashes."

Is Schimel right that drug overdoses have not always outnumbered car accident fatalities in Wisconsin but do now? If accurate, it would strengthen his case that drug addiction has become an increasingly urgent issue.

We decided to look at the numbers.

Checking the figures

In support of Schimel’s statement, state Department of Justice spokesman Johnny Koremenos provided a report issued in September 2015 by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

"Deaths from drug poisoning, also called ‘overdose,’ have doubled since 2004 and surpassed motor vehicle traffic deaths in 2008," the report said.

The sentence doesn’t refer to the total number of deaths, but to age-adjusted death rates. That approach is used to better make comparisons across years, when the age structure of a population changes.

An accompanying age-adjusted chart showed that 4 out of every 100,000 people died from a drug overdose in 1999 while 16 out of 100,000 did by 2013. The death rate from car crashes moderately declined during the same period, from around 13 out of 100,000 people to 9.

Beginning in 2008, the death rate from drug overdoses surpassed the death rate from car crashes in the chart.

We asked the Department of Health Services what the unadjusted numbers show.

According to Jennifer Miller, spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services, 2009 was the first time that deaths from drug overdoses outnumbered deaths from car crashes in Wisconsin. And overdose deaths have outnumbered car crash deaths every year since.

In 2014, the most recent year available, 843 people in Wisconsin died of drug overdoses while 558 died in car crashes.

So both age-adjusted and raw numbers show that beginning in 2008 or 2009 (depending on which numbers you use) more people in Wisconsin died from drug use than from car crashes.

Nationally, the total number of drug-related deaths surpassed the number of motor vehicle deaths in 2008 -- about the same time the numbers flipped in Wisconsin.

Our rating

Schimel said more people now die in Wisconsin from drug overdoses than car crashes.

The most recent data available from 2014 supports his statement -- 2009 was the first year when more people died from drug overdoses than in car crashes.

We rate his statement True.