SALT LAKE CITY — More people die in Utah from prescription drug abuse than car accidents. And that number is up 31 percent in the last three years.

Intermountain Healthcare and the Utah Department of Health's prevention campaign, Use Only As Directed, have joined forces to educate Utahns about the proper use and disposal of prescription medications.

About a quarter of all Utahns have leftover prescription pain medications in their homes — unused pills that are tossed into a drawer and forgotten about. This increases the opportunity for misuse, abuse or theft. It's a growing problem in Utah, said Robert Rolfs, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health.

"It's one of the most important health problems that's come around in the past 10 or 20 years,” Rolfs said. “It’s now the leading cause of injury death. More people die than in motor vehicle crashes for example.”

Statistics show that about 550 Utahns die each year from prescription drug overdoses, and Utah ranks fifth in the nation in that category, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These are prescription medications that you get from your doctor or pharmacist that you tend to think of as safe,” Rolfs said. “There are twice as many people in Utah each year who die of prescription medications than die from heroin or cocaine combined.”

The increase in overdoses is partly because new pain medications have been developed over the years, so more get prescribed, and the opportunities for abuse and addiction increase, Rolfs said. That's why the state's health department launched this campaign to encourage the safe use, storage and disposal of all prescription medications.

"You're not supposed to flush them down the toilet, you're not supposed to throw them in the trash." Rolfs said. “You're supposed to put them in a special collection site, but there haven't been too many of those."

That is until now. At nearly two dozen of its community pharmacies across the state, Intermountain Healthcare has installed secure drop-off boxes called "Med Safe." Utah is one of a few states in the nation installing these. People who have unused medications can deposit them in the boxes for proper disposal.

“We just want to make sure that, knowing that people are dropping off, we want to make sure they're safe and secure,” said Buck Stanford, community pharmacy operations director for Intermountain Healthcare. “That's why they're double-locked, they're secure in the pharmacies. They are in the over-the-counter area."

Intermountain Healthcare will spend $300,000 in each of the next three years on the awareness campaign. In addition to the drop-off boxes, there will also be signs and messages on pharmacy receipts. Large pill-bottle hourglasses will be on pharmacy counters to encourage conversation between patients and medical staff.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc