NTSB Report Cites Increasing Pilot Drug Use

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Tuesday, the NTSB released a report on pilot drug use that, based on post-crash toxicology tests on pilots killed in aircraft accidents from 1990 through 2012, concluded drug use of all types, particularly over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, is up among pilots and that the risk of pilot impairment is on the rise. However, the study did not evaluate whether there actually was any pilot impairment in any of the accidents in which evidence of even a small amount of a drug was found. The NTSB noted that the use of OTC and illicit drugs is increasing among the U.S. population as a whole. The report noted that “the most common potentially impairing drug pilots had used was diphenhydramine, a sedating antihistamine and an active ingredient in many OTC allergy formulations, cold medicines, and sleep aids. Although evidence of illicit drug use was found only in a small number of cases, the percentage of pilots testing positive for marijuana use increased during the study period, mostly in the last 10 years.” Of concern for those involved in the effort to get rid of the third-class medical certificate, the report went on to note that “pilots who did not have a medical certificate or whose certificate had expired were more likely than those with a medical certificate to have used potentially impairing drugs, drugs used to treat potentially impairing conditions, and drugs designated as controlled substances. The number of pilots without a current medical certificate has been increasing since 2005, and the trend is likely to continue.”

Despite the sky-is-falling tenor of the report, it admitted: “However, there has not been an increasing trend in the proportion of accidents for which the NTSB cited impairment from drugs or medical conditions over the study period.” It went on to call for further research to determine whether a positive toxicology finding correlates to actual pilot impairment and the cause of a particular accident. The report criticized the FAA for not providing adequate information to pilots to allow them to make informed decisions as to what drugs should or should not be used when flying. The report made several recommendations, including for the FAA to: “Develop, publicize, and periodically update information to educate pilots about the potentially impairing drugs identified in toxicology test results of fatally injured pilots, and make pilots aware of less impairing alternative drugs if they are available; require pilots who are exempt from medical certification requirements to periodically report their status as an active pilot and to provide a summary of recent flight hours; and to conduct a study to assess the prevalence of over-the-counter, prescription, and illicit drug use among flying pilots not involved in accidents, and compare those results with findings from pilots who have died from aviation accidents to assess the safety risks of using those drugs while flying.”

AOPA urged that the conclusions of the report be regarded with caution. It noted that “there are only a handful of accidents each year in which medical or drug impairment is cited as a contributing factor.” “There are just far too many gaps and unknowns in this study for us to be able to draw any meaningful conclusions about aviation safety,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “Overall the number of general aviation accidents has declined significantly over the past decade, and continuing that trend should be our focus. What pilots really need is good information about how to determine their fitness to fly, and we are working with medical experts and others in the aviation community to give them better educational and decision-making tools.”

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