Monday, September 15, 2014

More pilots testing positive for drugs, US National Transportation Safety Board says

Tests of pilots killed in crashes have revealed shocking results. Picture: iStock
Tests of pilots killed in crashes have revealed shocking results. Picture: iStock Source: Getty Images
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 by the US National Transportation Safety Board. 

The study examined toxicology reports for almost 6700 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 US population was ageing, 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.

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. 11 Sep 2014

6,700 pilots killed in a period of 22 years, equates to an average of approx 304 pilots per year.

Compare that figure to that of (for example) New South Wales road fatalities figure of 360-370 for the period of 2011 or 2012, then there is a serious concern regarding air safety.

The Australian authorities fund a commercial television advertisement (propaganda) campaign called "Speed Kills" referring to road fatalities as a result of high vehicle velocity.

Information is falsified by police who are given the direct order to attribute speed as the factor rather than driver error in their reports.

It is well known within the police community that speed actually contributes approx. 1-5% of all road fatalities.

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