Study Shows Increased Use of Drugs by Pilots in Fatal Airplane Crashes

AviationOne of the leading causes of airplane crashes is pilot error. New, troubling information has come to light regarding a contributing factor for those fatal pilot mistakes.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently announced the findings of a study that examined 6,597 aviation accidents between 1990 and 2012 in which the pilot was killed. The goal of the study was to determine what role, if any, drug use played in fatal airplane crashes. The drugs included prescription medicines, over-the-counter medications, and illegal, recreational drugs.

Drugs Found in Pilots’ Toxicology Reports

The research was based on pilot toxicology reports following each deadly aviation accident. Alcohol use was not included in the study. Most of the deceased were private pilots, as opposed to commercial pilots. The study showed an increasing use by pilots of all three drug types. The study listed 22 different types of drugs found in toxicology reports, including:

  • antidepressants
  • diet aids
  • sedating pain relievers
  • prescription sleep aids

One conclusion from the study is that the pilots in 2012 fatal crashed tested positive for drugs at a rate four times higher than levels found in 1990. In 1990, the percentage of fatal aviation crashes in which more than one drug was found in the pilot’s system was 2 percent. In 2012, that number hit 20.5 percent. No pilots in the 1990 fatal accidents tested for more than two drugs, while in 2012, 8 percent of the deadly airplane accidents were determined to have pilots who used more than two drugs.

The impairing drug most often found in the pilots is a type of antihistamine commonly found in over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines, as well as sleep aids. While illegal drug use was a very low percentage of the findings, the researchers noted that marijuana use by pilots did increase, especially in the last 10 years of the study period.

Ninety eight percent of the pilots were male. On average, the pilots in this study were 5 to 15 years older than the entire pilot population, and the average age of the pilots killed in accidents increased during the study period, from 46.2 in 1990 to 57.3 in 2012. Researchers noted the increasing age of the pilots may indicate a growing reliance of medications, just as with the aging U.S. population.

Investigations into the causes of fatal aviation accidents are complicated. Pilot error is just one cause; others include poor maintenance and structural problems with the aircraft. If you have had a family member killed in an airplane accident, an attorney who handles aviation crash cases may be able to help determine those responsible and hold them accountable.