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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Random Tests New Federal Law Forcing Region’s Professional Drivers To Submit To Drug Tests

Jim Lynch Staff Writer Staff Wr

Snowplow drivers and some school bus drivers who report to work this week after an evening of cocktails might not be allowed to drive.

The nation’s drug war is creeping into the region’s transportation system, forcing more professional drivers to submit to urine and breath tests.

A new federal law demands transit, school bus and some other drivers undergo random drug and alcohol testing starting Jan. 1.

Alcohol Breathalyzer readings as low as .02 - one-fifth of the legal limit for driving - will be enough to park a driver for 24 hours.

The new tests force major transit operations in Spokane and North Idaho to randomly test 50 percent of their drivers for drugs, and 25 percent for alcohol in 1995.

Large trucking operations, the bigger school districts and the Idaho Department of Transportation will be affected initially in Idaho. Truckers already are tested for drugs.

The same law, an addition to the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988, hits smaller transit operators in 1996 - including North Idaho Community Express.

Some labor unions call the random drug tests an invasion of privacy. They also are paid for by local taxpayers.

The largest Idaho agency affected is the Idaho Transportation Department, which has 750 permanent drivers and 200 temporary drivers statewide.

The tests cost $50 per drug test and $10 per alcohol test, said Cheryl Rost, ITD employee safety risk manager. She did not have an annual estimate for what it would cost to implement the law.

Many drivers have voiced their opposition to the new requirements, Rost said.

“The drivers feel it’s a matter of privacy,” she said. “Even if they lead a very clean lifestyle, they don’t think it’s fair that some people are being asked to be tested and others are not.”

Testing the Spokane Transit Authority staff, including about 280 bus drivers, will cost as much as $40,000 a year, said Gary Hunt, STA personnel director.

Hunt said the STA already tests new employees for drugs. It also tests drivers after accidents, and when there is a suspicion of drug use.

The random tests will occur once a month, Hunt said.

“There’s some members that have had some heartburn over it, but you might expect that,” said George Kettenton, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 1015, which represents STA drivers.

Kettenton said most members have accepted increasingly stringent drug tests as “a fact of life.”

The new law goes beyond drivers to include the random testing of some mechanics and others in “safety-sensitive functions.” It also includes, for the first time, drivers of vehicles and trucks over 26,000 pounds.

Jack Buell Trucking of St. Maries, which employs about 130 drivers, already does random drug testing, but will be adding the random alcohol tests next week.

Buell said the new requirements are costly, but “there’s always a reason for some of this. We understand.”

Buell undergoes the same test as his employees. “That makes them feel better,” he said.

Sue Walker, business agent with Teamsters Union General Local 690, said the union notified drivers the alcohol tests can detect drinking habits from the prior evening.

“You could very well be .02 if you had five drinks the night before,” Walker said. “We make it very clear to our members how little alcohol .02 is. You don’t even feel a .02. You feel fine. I’m sure we’ll be having a number of people off the clock for 24 hours.”

Walker said the union doesn’t like random drug tests, but noted the new policy is well crafted.

“We have always considered random drug testing a violation of privacy, but as a practical matter, as long as the tests are truly random, and are not used as a weapon, we’re dealing with them.”

Most North Idaho school districts won’t be implementing the new regulations until 1996 because they have fewer than 50 drivers.

One exception, Bonner County School District, already has random drug and alcohol tests for its drivers, said assistant superintendent Jim Fisher.

The new law will not have much impact on Spokane’s school bus drivers, said Joe Madsen, coordinator for safety and transportation for Spokane School District 81.

Most of District 81’s drivers are contract employees with Mayflower, which already has most of the same tests in place, Madsen said.

But he said there will be an added expense to meet the federal law that will likely be passed along to taxpayers when the drivers’ contract is renegotiated in three years.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jim Lynch staff writer Staff writer Susan Drumheller contributed to this report.

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