Drug Testing and Public Safety

WHEN the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil in 1989, wreaking environmental havoc, the captain had been drinking. When a New York City subway train derailed in August 1991, killing five people, the driver was under the influence of alcohol. And when an Amtrak freight train crashed into a passenger train in January 1987, killing 16 people and injuring 170 others, the Conrail engineer driving the freight was suspected of using marijuana.

So there was ample reason for the United States Department of Transportation to propose new rules mandating on-the-job breath tests for 7 million transportation workers in safety-related positions. Under the new regulations, put forward Dec. 10, testing for drug use will be expanded to include mass-transit workers.

All applicants for transportation jobs will undergo urinalysis to determine the presence of drugs. Companies will also administer random breath tests for alcohol to up to half of their employees throughout the year. Every worker involved in an accident will be tested.

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The new regulations, mandated by Congress last year, will affect the airline, bus, truck, railroad, and merchant-marine industries.

The Transportation Department believes the new regulations will save 1,200 lives and prevent 21,000 injuries each year. Even at the risk of employees' rights to privacy, the objective is laudable.

The Supreme Court ruled on the issue of safety versus employees' rights in 1989, in a case involving drug testing for railroad crew members involved in serious accidents. It said that testing was a reasonable and effective way to serve government's interest in "surpassing safety issues" related to protecting the public.

This emphasis makes sense: Safety is a primary concern. But the American Civil Liberties Union may be on to something when it says there are other ways to test for safety that are less intrusive, and possibly more accurate, than urinalysis.

The ACLU advocates impairment testing using a computer device that measures hand-eye coordination and effectively identifies safety risks regardless of the cause, be it drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, or stress. The Transportation Department helped evaluate the impairment test and knows its benefits.

Unlike urinalysis, impairment tests tell employers what they need to know about a worker's ability to perform that day. Urinalysis, on the other hand, may reveal traces of a drug taken a week ago or may not detect one taken minutes earlier. It is often several days before test results are returned.

It is important that every effort be made to employ testing methods that are accurate and fair. The line between testing for fitness and encroaching on the privacy of employees should be honored. The dominant concern, however, is ensuring the safety of millions of Americans who use public transportation every day.

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