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More pilots in crashes testing positive for illegal drugs: NTSB

Sept. 10, 2014, Washington, D.C. - Tests of pilots killed in plane crashes over more than two decades show an increasing use of both legal and illegal drugs, including some that could impair flying, according to a study released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.


September 10, 2014
By The Associated Press

The study examined toxicology reports for almost 6,700 pilots killed
in crashes from 1990 to 2012. Not only did the share of pilots testing
positive for a drug increase over that period, but the share of pilots
who tested positive for multiple drugs increased as well. Pilots testing
positive for at least one drug increased from 9.6 per cent to 39 per
cent, while positive tests for two drugs rose from 2 per cent to 20 per
cent and three drugs from zero to 8.3 per cent.

 

Over the same period, new drugs were
coming into use and the U.S. population was aging, creating greater
demand for drugs. The toxicology tests "reflect tends in the general
population and likely indicate a significant increase in drug use" by
pilots as well, the study said.

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However, the share of
accidents the board has investigated in which impairment from a drug was
found to be a factor hasn't increased appreciably, the report said.
Since 1990, the NTSB has cited pilot impairment due to drugs as a cause
or a contributing factor in about 3 per cent of fatal civil aviation
accidents.

 

Acting NTSB Chairman Chris Hart said the
board "is concerned about possible safety implications of increased drug
use in all modes of transportation." He called the report "an important
first step toward understanding those implications."

 

Dr. Mary Pat McKay, the board's chief
medical officer, said the study was limited to aviation because
similarly comprehensive drug test data doesn't exist for fatal highway,
rail and maritime accidents. But it's likely there are similar trends in
those modes as well, she said.

 

The board also voted to
issue a safety alert to pilots, warning of the risk of impairment from
many over-the-counter drugs. The board issued several recommendations to
the Federal Aviation Administration and state governments aimed at
better communication of drug risks to pilots and operators in all
transportation modes.

 

More than 9 out of 10 of the pilots
tested were private rather than commercial pilots, and 98 per cent were
male. The average age of pilots killed also increased markedly, from 46
years old in 1990 to 57 in 2012. The average age of pilots killed was 5
to 15 years older than the general population of active pilots.

 

The tests also revealed increased pilot
use of all kinds of drugs, including drugs that could impair a pilot's
functioning as well as drugs used to treat potentially impairing
conditions such as seizure disorders and psychiatric illness.

 

The most common drug found
in the tests was an antihistamine that causes drowsiness and is a key
ingredient in many over-the-counter medications for allergies, colds and
sleep. Sedating antihistamines in general were found in 9.9 per cent of
pilots tested during the last five years studied, up from 2.1 per cent
of the cases during the early years examined.

 

The share of pilots testing positive for
illegal drugs was small, but increased from 2.3 per cent to 3.8 per
cent. The study attributed the increase mostly to greater marijuana use
in the last 10 years.

 

A statement by the Aircraft Owners and
Pilots Association, which represents private pilots, called the NTSB
study incomplete and said its results "should be regarded with caution."

 

"There are just far too many
gaps and unknowns in the study for us to be able to draw any

meaningful
conclusions about aviation safety," said Mark Baker, the association's
president.