Drug testing for whom? Our Turn

September 11, 1991

LAST month's fatal subway accident in New York City has prompted random drug and alcohol testing of subway crews and bus drivers and renewed the cry for increased testing for other workers. Is such testing appropriate? KATE WALSH O'BEIRNE: Life's not rotten enough in New York? Now we learn that in addition to the crime and filth below ground, subway riders should sweat out whether their motorman is drunk. The worst New York subway disaster in 63 years left five passengers dead and 145 injured. The motorman, Robert Ray, admitted that he had been drinking before reporting for duty and was falling asleep at the controls. He was operating the train at about four times the speed limit when it hurtled off the tracks. And these guys shouldn't be tested for alcohol?

Ray has been arrested and charged with murder, but accounts of the crash indicate that in addition to criminal behavior, there seems to have been a management meltdown. The New York Times reports that colleagues "knew Robert Ray to take a drink or two before squeezing into the motorman's cab, but expressed disbelief that he might have been so impaired that he lost control." Where was his supervisor?

On the night of the crash, Ray was driving so erratically the train's conductor twice asked him if he was feeling all right. Transit Authority procedures dictate that the conductor stop the train and notify the command center if an unsafe condition exists. That didn't happen.

The Transit Authority has been trying to impose random drug and alcohol testing on drivers for four years, but the union has objected. Mass transit workers are the only transportation workers not covered by federal guidelines for drug testing. Publicity following the fatal crash has forced New York's Transit Workers Union to acquiesce in random testing, but it's unforgivable that lives were lost before such a rudimentary safety measure was extended to subway and bus drivers.

Random testing could well have uncovered Ray's notorious behavior in time to avert this tragedy. Equally important, a stringent program would reinforce the Transit Authority's intolerance for the use of alcohol and encourage supervisors, conductors and co-workers to take their own responsibility more seriously.

BONNIE ERBE: When Robert Ray's drug test produced negative reading, I, for one, felt relief. Had he been on drugs, hysterical calls for expanded drug testing would have been exacerbated.

Ray was abusing alcohol -- a substance our society has decided to legalize, but one just as deadly as drugs. Conservatives, with their ineffectual war on drugs, and politicians looking to make a quick, cheap lunge toward re-election still cite this tragedy in calling for wider drug-testing.

As my colleague so generously points out, a little vigilance could have prevented Ray's accident. Signs of his substance abuse were as abundant as graffiti on subway cars, and yet his supervisors and co-workers chose to ignore them. The Associated Press reported Ray "had his problems at work: lateness, absence, sleeping on duty." This alone should have triggered suspicion, suspension or transfer to another job where public safety was not at risk.

But it did not. And even though Ray ran a signal while driving a train earlier this year, management only briefly suspended him without pay and then let him return to work with what co-workers knew was a substance abuse problem.

My colleague is sure that increased testing will rout substance abuse. But Ray had been tested for drug abuse twice in two years, once when he was promoted to motorman and once right after the signal incident. Both tests came out negative.

I was recently stopped for a minor traffic violation. Two policemen approached my car -- one on each side. The second officer hovered over my car, hand on holster. While the first officer asked for my driver's license and registration, the second scanned my car, looking, apparently, for drugs or other contraband. Such tactics are a direct result of the war on drugs. When hysteria overtakes reason, the innocent are made to pay )) for the sins of the guilty. The price is decreased liberty, particularly abhorrent when other, less restrictive measures lTC could yield the same results.

Kate Walsh O'Beirne is vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation. Bonnie Erbe is legal affairs correspondent for Mutual/NBC Radio Network.

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