NTSB Drug and Alcohol Study seems Statistically Impaired

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Drug use by anyone operating equipment capable of inflicting substantial property damage and personal injury is absolutely unacceptable. There is good reason for the government to know to what extent aircraft pilots and their maintenance crews are impaired, but the NTSB’s initiative to assess drug and alcohol use of aviation safety personnel is severely limited.

With the publicity surrounding legalization/decriminalization of some marijuana use by some states, the House Subcommittee on Government Operations Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Mica, held a hearing(see below ↓link) on whether operators of planes, trains and automobiles were doing so under the influence of drugs. Acting NTSB Chairman Hart, pictured↑above, was the lead witness in the hearing and he announced, among other statements, “to complete a safety study that examines trends in the prevalence of OTC, prescription, and illicit drugs identified by toxicology testing of fatally injured airmen between 1990 and 2012”.

He earlier noted in his testimony that:

“Currently, across the transportation modes, commercial operators are generally subject to pre-employment, periodic, random, reasonable cause, and post-accident testing for alcohol and 11 other legal and illegal potentially impairing substances, including marijuana. Regulations specify the maximum allowable drug and alcohol concentration levels, testing intervals, post-accident testing procedures, and reporting guidelines. Yet, despite the commitment of vast resources and intensive efforts over many decades in our country to address the many societal issues surrounding the use and abuse of drugs, their impact on the safety of the traveling public is still a major concern, and we still have a long way to go.”

Drug and alcohol testing, as noted in Chairman Hart’s testimony, is already a rigorous regimen among ALL safety related aviation workers in the commercial sphere. That means regulators should already know a great deal about airline pilots, aviation maintenance technicians and anyone else whose job directly impacts safety. Thus, it is not clear how the announced NTSB study will impact this class of airline professionals.

While that sector should be well documented, pilots and mechanics who work in the general aviation world are not controlled by federal regulations. It is possible that some aviation safety personnel, who work for businesses (not commercial flight, but members of NBAA, for example), may have to comply with those corporate drug and alcohol resting. The remainder of the GA community is not subject to testing and their possible impairment while on the ramps or in the air is a relevant group for an NTSB study.

Therein lies a rub; the Board is not a regulatory body. Its powers are limited to accidents and incidents and there it has substantial authority. The NTSB cannot compel persons to be subjected to any testing without some direct connection to an underlying investigation.

Chairman Hart’s statement makes it clear that the drug and alcohol study will be limited to the information collected from pilots in past aviation accidents. That is a skewed sample. The persons in the NTSB assessment are confined to pilots involved in accidents. Thus, its analysis will not reflect the population of persons who flew unimpaired or who flew under the influence, but did not crash. Another gap in the study will be mechanics, either licensed or aircraft owners who may repair their aircraft.

Without such a population, the value of the NTSB study is unclear. The history of imposing drug and alcohol testing of the commercial aviation safety personnel was extremely contentious. Without greater statistical integrity, it is hard to conceive what conclusions may be fairly drawn from this study.

P.S. Senate– vote and take the “Acting” out of Chris’ title.

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