Pilot Drug Use Linked to Increasing Number of Plane Crashes: Report

A report released this week raises serious concerns about the use of drugs among aviation pilots, finding more use of over-the-counter, prescription and illicit drugs among pilots killed in plane crashes.

The study issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) focused on pilots who died in plane crashes in the United States over the past two decades, finding that that pilots tested positive for drugs four times more often following fatal accidents 2012 than pilots killed in 1990.

Researchers compiled data using documented toxicology reports of pilots who died in plane crashes between 1999 and 2012, which included data on more than 6,600 pilots. More than 40 percent of the pilots had drugs in their systems, which is an alarming increase from 10 percent in 1990. Toxicology reports were done on nearly 90 percent of the pilots who died.

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Use of sleep inducing antihistamines and sedatives were present in 10% of pilots who died between 2008 and 2012. Drugs like Vicodin and Valium were the most commonly found sedatives.

Since 1990, illicit drug use, such as cocaine and marijuana, increased to 4% from 2.3%..

Nearly all the cases involved private pilots of small planes, not commercial pilots. One of the few commercial crashes in which drugs were identified involved marijuana and other illicit drugs.

Overall marijuana use among pilots increased to 3% from 1.6% in 1990. Typically younger pilots were more likely to use marijuana than older pilots.

Pilots were screened for 1,300 separate drugs and were an average of 57 years old at the time of death. This was also an increase in age from 46 nearly two decades earlier.

The increase in a pilots age and the correlation to drug use is similar to statistics of the general population, which is becoming older and sicker, making them more likely to be taking medications which could affect performance.

The study was not focusing on determining whether drug use caused impairment or contributed to accidents, instead to find the prevalence of use in fatally injured pilots.

Researchers found pilots who had more than one drug in their system increased from 2% in 1990 to more than 20% in 2012. Those with more than two drugs in their systems rose from zero to 8% by 2012.

The NTSB safety board indicates that it is alarmed by the increase in drug use and is calling on doctors and the Federal Aviation Administration to warn pilots about how performance may be affected by taking drugs of any kind, including over-the-counter medication. The findings of the full NTSB safety report will be available within the next few weeks.


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