More Airline Pilots Testing Positive for Drugs

By Victoria Kim 09/12/14

A new study shows that airline pilots are increasingly using both legal and illegal drugs.

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An increasing number of pilots are using both legal and illegal drugs, raising safety concerns about how the risk of impairment could affect performance.

A study released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board examined the toxicology reports of 6,677 pilots killed in crashes from 1990 to 2012, using data from the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute toxicology database and the NTSB aviation accident database. It revealed that in the study period, pilots testing positive for at least one drug increased from 9.6% to 39%, pilots testing positive for two drugs increased from 2% to 20%, and pilots testing positive for three drugs increased from zero to 8.3%.

The most common potentially impairing drug found in the toxicology tests was diphenhydramine, a sedating antihistamine and an active ingredient in many over-the-counter cold and allergy medications as well as sleep aids.

Although the study found an increase in drug use among the pilots that were tested, there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of accidents in which impairment was determined to be a cause or contributing factor to the accident, according to the NTSB. This figure has remained at about 3% of fatal civil aviation accidents and has not made a marked increase since 1990.

The study authors emphasized that while an increased use of medications point to an increasing risk of impairment, it remains uncertain whether more pilots are actually flying impaired. They also note that it was difficult to determine whether a pilot who tested positive was actually impaired at the time of the accident.

Illicit drug use was relatively uncommon among the study population. Illicit drug use among the pilots tested increased from 2.3% to 3.8% in the study period, largely due to increasing marijuana use.

The study included six safety recommendations that strive to further study the relationship between drug use and accident risk, as well as better educating pilots on the risks of potentially impairing drugs.

“I think the key take-away from this study for every pilot is to think twice about the medications you’re taking and how they might affect your flying,” said acting NTSB Chairman Chris Hart. “Many over-the-counter and prescription drugs have the potential to impair performance, so pilots must be vigilant to ensure that their abilities are in no way compromised before taking to the skies.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr