Academic journal article Human Factors

DWI Convictions Linked to a Higher Risk of Alcohol-Related Aircraft Accidents

Academic journal article Human Factors

DWI Convictions Linked to a Higher Risk of Alcohol-Related Aircraft Accidents

Article excerpt


Analysis of the risk of an alcohol-related accident among pilots with a driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) conviction is an important topic in human factors and aviation safety. Although most accidents do not involve pilots with DWI convictions, past studies have shown that pilots with convictions are at an increased risk of pilot-error accidents, even when alcohol is not a factor in the crash. Prior studies have also concluded that the risk of committing an error and compromising safety is greatly increased when alcohol is present. The risk of being involved in a fatal single-vehicle automobile crash increases exponentially as blood alcohol levels increase (Zador, 1991; Zador, Krawchuk, & Voas, 2000). Alcohol consumption also adversely affects flying performance, leading to operational errors (Billings, Wick, Gerke, & Chase, 1973; Billings, Demosthenes, White, & O'Hara, 1991). Some aviation studies have found performance decrement or hangover effects up to 14 hr after the consumption of alcohol (Yesavage & Leir er, 1986).

The percentage of fatal general aviation accidents involving alcohol has declined significantly over the past 30 years. General aviation is defined as all aviation except that carried out by the military and commercial airlines. It includes personal flying, business flying, instructional flying, agricultural spraying, and aerial photography. General aviation pilots operate under Part 91, Title 14, of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Harper and Albers (1964) were the first to publish results on the presence of alcohol in pilots killed in general aviation accidents. They reported that during 1963, an alarming 35.4% of the fatal aircraft accidents studies nationwide involved alcohol. This figure rose to 43% when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reviewed all the accident data for 1963 (Ryan & Mohler, 1972). Critics of the study, however, suspect that one explanation for the excessively high citation of alcohol involvement was that medical investigations on accidents were not performed at random; rather, those suspected of being associated with alcohol were selectively screened (Gibbons, 1988). Also, determining whether alcohol was ingested proves difficult because alcohol production can occur after death as tissues decompose (Canfield, Kupiec, & Huffine, 1993; Hardin, 2002; Plueckhahn, 1967; Videira de Lima & Midio, 1999). Studies of alcohol-related aviation accidents that do not control for postmortem alcohol production are suspect because false positives for the presence of alcohol could have been included in the data.

Harper and Albers's (1964) findings stimulated others to study medical factors in fatal accidents. Ryan and Mohler (1979) conducted a comprehensive study that analyzed fatal general aviation accidents involving alcohol from 1963 to 1976. They found that the percentage of fatal general aviation accidents involving alcohol declined from 43% in 1963 to 13% in 1976. Ryan and Mohler (1979) attributed this reduction partly to improvements in regulations (e.g., the 8-hr "bottle-to-throttle" rule implemented in 1971) and pilot education programs conducted by the FAA. Other reasons for the decline may relate to improvements in forensic toxicology methods implemented by the FAA over time. Specifically, improved collection and storage methods of autopsy blood samples, an increased number of cases evaluated for alcohol, and the use of better randomization procedures may have resulted in a more accurate account of the actual number of cases involving the ingestion of alcohol.

Since the late 1980s, the Forensic Toxicology Research Section of the FAA's Civil Aeromedical Institute has consistently reported that alcohol is linked to 6% to 9% of fatal general aviation accidents yearly (Canfield, Hordinsky, Millett, Endecott, & Smith, 2000; Salazar & Antunano, 1994). …

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