Drug overdose deaths caused by heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids last year surpassed the number of motor vehicle deaths on Maine roads for the first time, according to new federal statistics.

The latest figures put a state and national crisis into stark relief. Nationwide, heroin overdoses surpassed gun homicides in 2015, a Washington Post analysis found.

In Maine, the gap between motor vehicle deaths and opioid overdoses has narrowed almost as quickly as at the national level. As recently as 2011, motor vehicle deaths outnumbered heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths by almost nine to one in Maine.

[tableau server=”public.tableausoftware.com” workbook=”Opioidandvehicledeaths” view=”Dash?:showVizHome=no” tabs=”no” toolbar=”yes” revert=”” refresh=”” linktarget=”” width=”100%” height=”435px”][/tableau]

The figures reflect cases in which an opioid drug was a factor, meaning there could be some double-counting in cases where a person had multiple drugs in their system.

The figures released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show that Maine had 144 motor vehicle deaths in 2015. The agency reported 160 instances where heroin or synthetic narcotics, a category of drug that includes the dangerously potent fentanyl, contributed to an overdose.

The number of all drug overdoses surpassed the number of motor vehicle deaths in 2009, but it’s the first time the number of overdoses attributed to heroin, fentanyl and other opioids alone outpaced that number in Maine.

The Washington Post reported 12,989 people died nationally from heroin overdoses alone. Synthetic opioid deaths also rose sharply, but less dramatically than in Maine.

The latest CDC numbers confirm the public health crisis that state and federal officials have tried to curb, most recently with a bipartisan health bill that included $1 billion to help states fight the opioid crisis.

The CDC figures confirm that much of the increase is due to the category of synthetic opioids including fentanyl. Overdoses from those drugs spiked almost 80 percent in 2015, far above the annual increase from other opioids, such as oxycodone or heroin alone.

[tableau server=”public.tableausoftware.com” workbook=”Opioidandvehicledeaths” view=”Detaildash?:showVizHome=no” tabs=”no” toolbar=”yes” revert=”” refresh=”” linktarget=”” width=”100%” height=”435px”][/tableau]

Police agencies across the state have regularly warned people of the overdose threat posed by heroin laced with fentanyl, in response to the spike in overdose cases.

Overdoses from heroin and oxycodone were also up, but at a slower increase from 2014 compared to drugs such as fentanyl.

With grim statistics for 2015, the trend has continued this year. The Maine Attorney General’s Office reported in November that overall drug overdoses were set to surpass last year’s record number of 272.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.