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NTSB: More and More Pilots in Fatal Aircraft Crashes Using Drugs That Impair Flying Ability

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a study last week that looked at fatal crashes involving pilots who tested positive for at least one drug that could impair their flying abilities. On the whole, the NTSB looked at 6,000 private pilots who died in aviation accidents between 1990 and 2012. The drugs that could impair flying performance included everything from antihistamines for allergies (the most common drug detected in the study), over-the-counter medications, prescription cardiovascular medications, pain medications, antidepressants, anti-seizure medications and even illicit substances like marijuana.

Here is some of the data points highlighted within the study:

  • The percentage of pilots using one or more drugs that could affect cockpit performance "roughly doubled" between 1990 and 2012. 
  • Between 2008 and 2012, roughly one out of four pilots killed in general aviation crashes were taking at least one drug that could have impaired their ability to fly. 
  • In 1990, only two percent of pilots tested positive for more than one drug. In 2012, that number shot up to 20 percent.

While these data points are alarming, a few factors should be noted:

  • The study doesn't draw a clear link between toxicology reports on pilots and impairment. 
  • Toxicology reports that were analyzed "reflect trends in the general population." 
  • The percentage of crashes in which a pilot's drug use was found to be a contributing factor, remained unchanged during the course of the study at three percent.

The NTSB study prompted several recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), state authorities and pilots themselves. After criticizing the FAA on their failure to provide drug safety guidance, the NTSB asked them to "develop and distribute a clear policy regarding the marijuana use." The NTSB has also called on state authorities to make sure health care providers educate pilots with relevant drug information. Similarly, the NTSB has asked pilots to speak with their doctors or pharmacists about what effect their medications can have on them when they step into the cockpit.

"It is time we took a practical look at the relationship between drugs of all kind and accidents," said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart at a hearing last week in Washington.

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