More Pilots in Crashes Testing Positive for Drugs

By Alan Levin | September 11, 2014

Four times as many pilots killed in airplane crashes tested positive for drugs over the past two decades, tracking a broader societal trend in the use of antihistamines, painkillers and marijuana.

While most of the substances wouldn’t affect the ability to fly a plane, some of the drugs including pain medication and sleep aids would hurt performance, according to a draft of a report being released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board today. The most prevalent drugs are antihistamines like Benadryl that can cause drowsiness and decreased mental skills.

Pilots aren’t being adequately warned about the dangers these substances pose, accident investigators at the NTSB said. Four out of every 10 pilots killed in crashes in 2011 had over- the-counter, prescription or illegal drugs in their systems, a fourfold increase since 1990, the report shows.

“Some drugs have the potential to significantly impair the user’s level of alertness, judgment, reaction time or behavior leading to transportation accidents,” the NTSB said.

About 23 percent of pilots who tested positive from 2008 through 2012 had taken drugs that impaired performance, according to the NTSB. The percentage more than doubled from 11 percent in the period 1990 through 1997.

Since 1990, the Federal Aviation Administration has tested all pilots killed in accidents for drugs. Results for 6,677 pilots involved in 6,597 accidents were included in the study.

Illicit Drugs

Illegal drug use was a small portion of those who tested positive. It grew to 3.8 percent in the 2008-2012 period from 2.3 percent in 1990-1997.

“The increasing trend in illicit drug results was largely attributed to increasing positive findings for marijuana use among study pilots,” the NTSB said.

Marijuana was found in 3 percent of pilots in 2008-2012, or 79 percent of those with illicit drugs, according to the NTSB.

The largest category of drugs found in pilots was over-the- counter sedating antihistamines, according to the NTSB. These drugs include diphenhydramine, known by the trade name Benadryl, used to treat allergies or as a sleep aid.

The study found 7.5 percent of pilots who tested positive had taken over-the-counter antihistamines. The rate increased to 9.9 percent in 2008-2012, from 5.6 percent in 1990-1997.

NTSB Recommendations

The FAA doesn’t publish a list of drugs prohibited for pilots. While the agency provides guidance to doctors on classes of banned drugs, it’s difficult for non-medical professionals to understand, according to the agency.

The NTSB recommended the FAA do more to educate aviators and said the regulator should develop a clear policy on marijuana use. It also recommended the FAA study drug use among pilots who aren’t in accidents to assess the risks.

The NTSB also urged U.S. states to develop guidelines to better inform people prescribed pain medication about the risks of operating autos, aircraft and other vehicles.

The board, which has no regulatory powers, makes safety recommendations after investigations.

Most of the accidents in the study were pilots on private flights, the NTSB found. About 4 percent involved commercial operations and fewer than 1 percent included major airlines.

Alcohol wasn’t included in the study because it can form in body tissue after death even if a person hadn’t ingested any, according to the NTSB. The agency found a link between alcohol intoxication and accidents in fewer than 2 percent of fatal crashes.

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