The Number 3 Cause of Death Might Surprise You

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Unintentional, preventable injuries – commonly known as “accidents” – claimed a record high 161,374 lives in 2016 to become the third leading cause of death in the United States for the first time in recorded history, according to National Safety Council data analysis. Based on this new data, an American is accidentally injured every second and killed every three minutes by a preventable event – a drug overdose, a motor vehicle crash, a fall, a drowning, a choking incident or another preventable incident.


A total of 14,803 more people died accidentally in 2016 than in 2015 – a 10 percent year-over-year increase. It is the largest single-year percent rise since 1936, and the largest two-year rise (+18.6 percent) since 1903.i The unprecedented spike has been fueled by the opioid crisis. Unintentional opioid overdose deaths totaled 37,814 from drugs including prescription opioid pain relievers, heroin, and illicitly-made fentanyl.ii

NSC analysis of the data – tracked annually by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control – also confirmed the Council’s motor vehicle fatality estimate for 2016. Final Council analysis shows motor vehicle deaths rose 6.8 percent to 40,327 in 2016 – in step with the Council’s original estimate of 40,200 deaths.iii NSC can now confirm that the final 2016 data marks a 14 percent increase in roadway deaths since 2014 – the largest two-year jump in 53 years.

“Our complacency results in 442 deaths each day,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “For years our country has accepted unintentional injuries as an unavoidable reality. The truth is, there is no such thing as an accident. Every single one of these deaths was preventable. We know what to do to save lives, but collectively we have failed to prioritize safety at work, at home and on the road.”

Preventable deaths have been rising since 2009 after years of declines and plateaus, and they trail only heart disease and cancer when it comes to the number of lives lost annually. Unlike other causes of death, preventable injuries are a threat at every age.

In spite of the current increase in deaths, Americans are still safer than in the early 1900’s. In 1903, the accidental standardized death rateiv was 99.4 per 100,000 population – twice as high as the current death rate of 47.2. However, the current death rate is 39 percent higher than the lowest recorded rate, 34.0, achieved in 1992.

The National Safety Council has launched various initiatives to educate Americans about how they can reduce their own risks. Recent efforts and resources include:

  • The Stop Everyday Killers campaign puts a face on the opioid epidemic through film, digital assets and a traveling memorial exhibit, which stops in Pittsburgh on January 29. Visit for more information.
  • The Road to Zero coalition – a joint effort with the U.S. Department of Transportation – is working to end all roadway fatalities by 2050. Visit for more.
  • The State of Safety report provides a roadmap for states to better protect residents. According to the report, no state receives an “A” – and 11 states are failing. Visit for more.

NSC encourages Americans to perform an annual safety checkup to assess risk. The free Safety Checkup tool generates a safety profile based on factors such as age, gender and state of residence.

Additional resources, safety tips, programs and other information are available at

About the National Safety Council
The National Safety Council ( is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to eliminate preventable deaths at work, in homes and communities, and on the road through leadership, research, education and advocacy. Founded in 1913 and chartered by Congress, NSC advances this mission by partnering with businesses, government agencies, elected officials and the public in areas where we can make the most impact.

i The Council began tracking unintentional injuries in 1903.
ii NSC defines “opioid-related deaths” as those involving opioids that can be prescribed or distributed by a medical professional; therefore, heroin-related deaths are not reflected in NSC accidental overdose data. This distinction means the NSC number varies slightly from the final mortality figures used by CDC.
iii NSC and NHTSA count motor vehicle crash deaths using somewhat different criteria. NSC uses data from the National Center for Health Statistics, an arm of the CDC, so that deaths occurring within one year of the crash and on both public and private roadways – such as parking lots and driveways – are represented. This means the Council’s data may be higher than NHTSA data; however, both data sets always show the same upward or downward trends.
iv Deaths per 100,000 population adjusted to the year 2000 standard population to remove the influence of changes in age distribution between 1903 and 2016.

SOURCE National Safety Council

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