Pending U.S. Rule on Drug Testing of Bus Drivers Argued

Times Staff Writer

Despite substantial strides in controlling the problem at the RTD, the emotional issue of drug use by bus drivers reared its head in Los Angeles again Wednesday--this time over a pending federal regulation that will require public transit systems to randomly test train and bus operators.

The proposed Urban Mass Transportation Administration regulation, which grew partly out of the storm of controversy here two years ago over drug use by RTD drivers, would cut off federal funding to any transit system that does not implement random, mandatory tests of drivers, mechanics and others in “safety-sensitive” jobs.

The rule, which was the focus of a downtown public hearing Wednesday, is part of the Reagan Administration’s stepped up anti-drug campaign--motivated, critics maintain, by election-year politics. UMTA officials, who say the regulation could be in effect by the end of the year, are forging ahead despite constitutional questions on random drug testing, as well as local laws and transit labor agreements limiting its use in some cities.

“It is clearly in the public interest not to have drugged drivers at the wheel (of a transit bus),” said Alfred Dellibovi, head of UMTA, in an interview before Wednesday’s hearing. “This is on a fast track. . . . (The Reagan Administration) is committed to having this (apply) as soon as possible.”


However, representatives of the Southern California Rapid Transit District and other transit agencies across the nation objected, telling Dellibovi and other UMTA officials at the hearing that it would create a whole new set of legal and political problems.

RTD officials argued that their union-approved drug-testing program has been effective. Twenty-one percent of RTD drivers tested in September, 1985, when the program began, were found to have used drugs. Several months later the positive test rate for drivers was coming down, but a series of major bus accidents involving drivers who had used drugs set off a long, intense run of public criticism of the RTD.

The testing program was made stricter late in 1986 and now includes tests after even small accidents, for suspicious behavior and during periodic medical examinations.

Suzanne Gifford, the RTD’s top attorney, told UMTA officials Wednesday that the percentage of drivers testing positive for drugs has been reduced to about 2%. "(We have) in place a program that has given us very good results. . . . Random testing is not going to achieve what you seek,” Gifford said. “We believe random testing has legal problems that are serious enough . . . it should never be mandated (by UMTA).”


Court Challenge Foreseen

Transit labor unions have strongly opposed random testing, claiming it is not called for and, as some courts have held, violates workers’ constitutional protection against searches without probable cause. An RTD drivers union spokesman, Goldy Norton, questioned the staying power of the UMTA proposal, saying “every transit union in the country” will challenge it in court.

Daniel Linville, a Seattle bus drivers representative, told the UMTA panel, “The only increase in the past few years has been in media hype on drug use.” Linville also charged that the proposed regulation is a “politically motivated opportunity (for politicians) to showcase their concern about drug abuse.”

The hearing was kicked off with an appearance by California’s Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, who is campaigning for reelection. Wilson strongly endorsed the regulation and invoked emotional images of the 16 people killed last year when Ricky Gates, a pot-smoking Conrail train engineer, slammed his engine into an Amtrak passenger train in Maryland. “Many of them (were) students returning (from) their final Christmas ever at home with their families,” Wilson told the panel.


(Later in the day, campaign spokesmen for Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, Wilson’s Democratic challenger in the November election, said McCarthy also supports the regulation.)

Dellibovi denied that Wednesday’s hearing or the proposed regulation was crafted for political purposes.

Current testing programs by the RTD and other agencies have helped, Dellibovi acknowledged, but he added, “You don’t need too many Ricky Gateses out there to incur a tremendous loss in life.”