A new study on pilot drug use released by the National Transportation Safety Board is “incomplete and its conclusions should be regarded with caution,” according to officials with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
The study of more than 6,600 cases reviewed toxicology tests performed on pilots killed in aviation accidents from 1990 through 2012. The study concluded that drug use of all types, including over the counter and prescription medications, is on the rise among pilots and that the risk of impairment from drugs is also increasing.
Despite the apparent increase in drug use among pilots, the study noted that there has not been a corresponding increase in the proportion of accidents in which the NTSB determined that impairment was a contributing factor. In fact, there are only a handful of accidents each year in which medical or drug impairment is cited as a contributing factor.
The study also noted that some portion of the increased level of drug use could be attributable to the fact that the pilot population, like the U.S. population, is aging.
“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.”
In the report, the NTSB recommended that the FAA provide a list of drugs that are allowed and disallowed. Currently, the agency only provides such information to medical examiners and does not make it available for use by pilots.
It is also impossible to tell how drug use among pilots compares to drug use in other forms of transportation since only aviation has such strict toxicology testing standards and maintains a robust database, Baker noted.
“The study focuses on general aviation pilots as a basis for considering the impact of medications on all transportation modes, because it is about the only data set available thanks to mandatory post mortem toxicological screening following fatal accidents. Other modes of personal and recreational transportation are not subject to these requirements,” said Doug Macnair, vice president of government relations for the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). “This initial step does not single general aviation out from other transportation modes. NTSB researchers told the board several times that there is still much to learn before any conclusions can be made. The aircraft accident rate has continued to fall over the 22-year period of the study, and accidents where impairment by medications or drugs are determined to be a causal factor have not increased over that period of time.”
“We agree that there needs to be more education on the effects of medications and drugs in all modes of transportation,” Macnair continued. “We also believe that the medical education requirement included as part of the EAA/AOPA proposal for aeromedical reform addresses the knowledge gap that exists in the pilot population on the impairing effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Nothing in the medical certification process that exists today effectively accomplishes that. The goal of the EAA/AOPA medical reform effort is to reduce unnecessary cost and complexity of medical certification, while improving the education of pilots in a manner allowing them to make smart, informed decisions and thus enhance overall safety.”