Torqued: NTSB Report on Drug Use Trends in Accidents Deserves Broad Industry Action

 - May 1, 2020, 6:13 AM

As I sit down to write this, we’re in the middle of a virtual lockdown across much of the country, some ordered by local governments and some voluntarily undertaken to avoid the spread of a new virus wreaking havoc across the globe. I hope that by the time you read this, the global pandemic that has upended lives around the world will be abating and that the actions we took individually and collectively will make a difference both in the outcomes of the pandemic and in the future of so many that will be affected by the time this is over. What I have been most struck with, aside from actions taken by state and local governments, is the way sports franchises, entertainment companies, corporations large and small, and, of course, the airlines, have voluntarily taken drastic steps to mitigate the spread of this virus. I hope this signals a new willingness in other areas to consider the public good along with self-preservation. 

I’m thinking about another epidemic that has implications for pilots, especially general aviation pilots who aren’t required to hold a medical, that we could do more about collectively as an industry. And that is the use of drugs that can compromise safety when flying. I’ve just finished reading the recent NTSB report on the prevalence of drugs found in toxicology reports of flying pilots who died in aircraft accidents. The report covers fatal accidents in the United States over the five-year period from 2013 to 2017. During this time, there were 1,042 aviation accidents in which the flying pilot was fatally injured. Toxicology reports were available for 952 pilots (91 percent). Those reports found that “266 (28 percent) fatally injured pilots tested positive for at least one potentially impairing drug, 144 (15 percent) pilots tested positive for at least one drug indicating a potentially impairing condition, 94 (10 percent) pilots’ test results indicated evidence of use of at least one controlled substance, and 47 (5 percent) tested positive for an illicit drug.”

The drugs found included over-the-counter, prescription, and illicit drugs. While the report does not conclude that drugs were the cause of any of these accidents, clearly many of them can cause or contribute to poor pilot decision-making and a diminution of flying skills.

The NTSB had previously studied this issue in fatal accidents that occurred from 1990 to 2012. One of the NTSB’s findings that is of particular concern is: “over the entire period from 1990 to 2017, increasing trends were identified in the proportions of study pilots testing positive for at least one drug categorized as potentially impairing, used to treat a potentially impairing condition, or as a controlled substance.”

Although the NTSB highlighted the potential problems of pilots taking drugs in its earlier report, the data indicates an upward trend. The NTSB identified safety issues such as “(1) the ongoing need for the FAA to publicize—for pilots’ use—information about marijuana given its decriminalization in several states and its unchanged classification as an illicit drug per federal law; and (2) the continued need for the FAA to conduct research to assess the relationship between drug use and accident risk.”

While the FAA has its role to play, it’s hard not to wonder what we could do as an industry—individually and collectively—to help educate and prevent pilots from taking drugs (over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal) that can affect their flying skills or pilot decision-making. I’ve been particularly concerned about pilots who either don’t realize or forget that just because marijuana sales are legal in some states, the drug is not legal for pilots to use. Ever. One of the NTSB’s findings in the report is that “increasing evidence of marijuana use by pilots in this research update indicates a safety hazard that has not been effectively addressed.”

So aside from the recommendations to the FAA to address this issue, what can all of us do individually and collectively to raise awareness that legalizing marijuana potentially contributes to an increase in pilots smoking or otherwise ingesting it? I have talked to numerous GA pilots—and not just the younger ones—who think if it’s legal to buy and use for medicinal purposes, they’re okay to fly as long as they’re not flying under the influence. The average age of the pilots in the NTSB’s report was 56, so it’s clearly not just a young-pilot issue. Many of the pilots I’ve spoken with don’t realize that marijuana remains a federally illicit drug and thus completely proscribed for pilots. Many don’t realize that the effects of marijuana can linger in the body and that there is no eight-hour bottle to throttle rule for marijuana. And the problem of pilots using marijuana is likely to increase as more states legalize its use for medical and recreational purposes. Even in states where marijuana use is illegal, a number of prosecutors have announced that they won’t prosecute people found in possession of small amounts.

So I would ask all of you, my readers, especially flight schools, flight instructors, and fixed-base operators, what—if anything—are you doing on an ongoing basis to alert pilots to the risks of marijuana or other over-the-counter and prescription drugs? What do you think could be done? I discuss this topic every semester in the aviation safety courses I teach at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, where the overwhelming majority of my students are in the pilot-training program. And while I think it’s important for aviation college educators to raise this topic, those of you who have regular interactions with GA pilots, especially before they go fly, could also play a very important role.