Industry experts and state authorities shared recommendations to decrease the number of instances of school bus drivers being under the influence behind the wheel and with students on board.
The start of the 2017-2018 school year saw three reports within as many weeks of school bus driver DUIs while on the job. The last two weeks of 2017 saw three more incidents. The most recent one occurred in Arkansas on Dec. 29, when a basketball coach was arrested by state troopers for intoxication and endangering the welfare of minors, nine of whom were on his bus.
"Some of us might advocate for additional and more stringent national requirements for qualifications, training, and, especially the actual day-to-day performance of all school bus drivers, whether they be publicly employed or contracted," said Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. "It’s likely few parents would disagree, but in the larger context, there seems to be little appetite these days for more stringent or additional regulations, especially at the national level." The answer, he added, is for national, state and local transportation leaders to step up.
“This is a leadership and a training issue,” declared Robert Leach, who serves as transportation supervisor at Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was named “Colorado’s Best Trainer” in 2017 by the Colorado State Pupil Transportation Association.
“How is it that a driver is able to walk in the building, intoxicated, get in a vehicle and drive, and yet is not observed by a supervisor, manager or director? This tells me that nobody is managing the store, so to speak.” Leach told Student Transportation News.
After the second school bus driver DUI incident last month, New Jersey DOE spokesman David Saenz, Jr. pointed out a useful tool in Federal Regulation Part 382, which allows for reasonable suspicion testing of CDL holders for use of controlled substances or alcohol.
"The reasonable suspicion test can be ordered when at least two people, usually one person in a supervisory capacity, who have been properly trained by a medical review officer to be able to detect under the influence, suspect the driver is under the influence," he told STN.
Leach echoed that point. “In order for transportation leadership to perform a reasonable suspicion drug or alcohol test we must observe behaviors, odors, speech, and/or appearance,” he added.
Hood added that “many states, local school districts, and contracted transportation providers already enforce these stringent (federal) requirements for their school bus drivers,” but noted that the pressing driver shortages may prompt supervisors to not be as thorough as they should be. “We must address both of these issues concurrently and without compromising safety,” he said.
“It is our practice to have several supervisors greeting drivers for the specific purpose of ensuring each and every driver is fit to operate a school bus,” Leach explained. “Likewise, each driver is required to check in with dispatch to receive keys, and again this is so we can observe, smell, listen, and assess each driver’s sobriety.”
Technology, such as ignition interlocks that essentially require the driver to pass a breathalyzer test before allowing the bus to be started, offers assistance to a point. But Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said such solutions could be cost prohibitive for school districts, especially depending on the number of school buses they own and operate.
“Quite often, we find the best solution to still be continuous vigilance and monitoring by management for anyone providing school transportation services,” Baker told STN. “Staying heavily involved in training and keeping a watchful eye over behavior can go a long way in ensuring student safety.”
Leach said that transportation managers need to be leaders in their operations to ensure drivers steer clear of alcohol and drug use. “Leadership needs to have frank discussion with our employees about medicinal marijuana, opioids, blood alcohol levels and the like,” he recommended.
He added that district policy including termination must be made clear, but the conversation should also include “employee assistance programs that garner help for struggling individuals.”
“Driving and operating a school bus while impaired in any way, as reported in these incidents, should never, ever happen. We know most school bus drivers recognize that, and their record of transporting America’s students safely is unparalleled. But these violations tarnish that record, and, more importantly, endanger students and others,” Hood told STN. “Our paramount concern for student safety demands that we redouble our efforts to prevent any such incident.”
Toward that goal, Hood proposed that student transporters start asking the following questions:
- Should all school bus driver applicants and drivers receive a nationally uniform level and frequency of checks for criminal background and history?
- Should there be more thorough procedures to ensure existing federal requirements for immediate drug and alcohol testing of drivers are followed when there is reasonable suspicion of impairment? Should the consequences for violation be more stringent than the federal requirements and disallow altogether the federally permitted “return to duty” protocol?
- Should the types of on-road violations that disqualify drivers from being licensed and certified to transport students be readdressed? Should the standards be more stringent than those already required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for retention of commercial driver licenses?
- Should all school bus driver applicants and drivers receive a periodic medical fitness examination meeting or exceeding the requirements established by FMCSA for other regulated commercial drivers?