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Rules Mandate Drug Testing For Bus Drivers

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All school districts must set up programs to test for drug and alcohol use by employees who drive school buses, new federal regulations mandate.

The regulations, issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation and published in the Feb. 15 Federal Register, require any entity using commercially licensed drivers--including school districts, school-bus contractors, local agencies, and church and civic organizations--to establish stringent testing programs to deter drivers from engaging in substance abuse that could impede their performance.

All employers of 50 or more drivers must establish testing programs by the end of this year, while entities employing fewer drivers have until the end of 1995 to comply or risk being fined.

Experts last week estimated that following the regulations would cost about $100 per driver during the first year and about half that much each year thereafter.

Safety advocates and the National Association for Pupil Transportation, an organization representing school-bus-related personnel, welcomed the new rules, part of a host of similar new regulations applying to the transportation industry.

"If you are clean, you have nothing to hide,'' said S. Michael Roscoe, a past president of the N.A.P.T. who directs traffic-safety planning for the Indiana Department of Education.

While calling children's safety a worthwhile objective, officials of the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association protested the creation of yet another unfunded federal mandate.

"If the federal government wants to move into an area like this, it should be prepared to help pay for it,'' said Michael A. Resnick, the associate executive director of the N.S.B.A.

The National Education Association, which represents about 10,000 public school bus drivers and sought, unsuccessfully, to alter many of the rules during their development, now plans to instruct its affiliates on how to bargain on such issues as testing procedures, the re-employment of ousted drivers, and the question of who pays for rehabilitation.

"Obviously, bus drivers should not be using alcohol or illegal drugs while they are driving a bus,'' said Joel C. Packer, a senior professional associate in the government relations division of the N.E.A. "But, on the other hand, they have a right to protection from harassment and unreasonable tests.''

Dry, Not High

The new rules, established under the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991, pre-empt relevant provisions of union contracts, as well as state and local law, and cite U.S. Supreme Court rulings that upheld drug-testing policies in cases in which concern for public safety was considered to outweigh privacy rights.

Along with banning any drug abuse or on-the-job drinking, the rules also greatly restrict alcohol use during off-duty hours, prohibiting bus drivers from imbibing within four hours of getting behind the wheel and setting limits on blood-alcohol concentrations so low that some drivers who had a few drinks the previous night will not be allowed on the road the next day. Drivers also would be prohibited from carrying medications containing alcohol while behind the wheel.

The rules require drivers to be tested before they are hired, whenever a supervisor has reason to suspect a violation, and as soon as possible after an accident leading to a moving violation or fatal injury.

The rules also require drivers to be randomly tested often enough to insure that a quarter of them are tested for alcohol and half are tested for drugs each year; such tests could become more frequent if federal transportation officials discover a substance-abuse problem within their industry.

Drivers who have a blood alcohol count at or above 0.04--a level four-tenths the drunken-driving threshold established by most states--must be removed from their jobs and cannot return until they have undergone evaluations and any necessary rehabilitation, and successfully passed an on-duty breath test. They then must submit to six unannounced follow-up tests over the next year.

Drivers who have a blood-alcohol concentration of more than 0.02 but less than 0.04 are not to drive a bus for 24 hours, but any such employee may continue to perform job duties that have no bearing on the public safety.

The new rules require employers to provide abuse-prevention education, spell out testing policies, and keep records of test results.

Employers are permitted to hire third parties to administer their programs, and can form consortia to share the costs of tests and testing equipment.

Cost-Sharing Allowed

The trade journal School Bus Fleet surveyed about 140 school-bus contractors in 1992 and found that 54 percent used pre-employment drug testing, 46 percent had random drug tests, and 49 percent tested drivers after accidents.

Contractors have embraced such policies because they set "a good image'' and are "basically saying we won't tolerate this kind of behavior when you are transporting our children,'' said Karen E. Finkel, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association, an organization that represents school-bus contractors.

Few contractors have set up alcohol-testing programs, however, and many do not provide health insurance covering drug or alcohol rehabilitation.

A separate 1992 School Bus Fleet survey of 100 school districts found that 58 percent had implemented pre-employment drug testing, but only 9 percent used random testing, and only 15 percent tested drivers after accidents.

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