Transportation industry maintains anti-drug focus

Tests, rehabilitation used to ensure a sober work force

February 27, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The widespread drug-testing of train engineers, airline pilots, truck and bus drivers -- prompted largely by a deadly 1987 train wreck in Chase -- has for the most part kept the roads, skies and rails free of known drug abusers like Sam Epps, the driver of the light-rail train that crashed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport Feb. 13.

Epps had tested positive for cocaine during a random drug check in 1994 but was allowed to return to his job after completing a drug rehabilitation program. After the Feb. 13 accident, which sent 22 passengers to the hospital, Epps again tested positive for cocaine.

He was also taking oxycodone, a pain reliever that can cause drowsiness, blurred vision and an out-of-body feeling. The medication had been prescribed by his dentist after the extraction of four of Epps' teeth.

During the past decade, the evolution of rehabilitation programs for commercial transportation workers has allowed thousands of pilots and engineers to kick their drug habits and return to work.

But proponents of stronger drug-testing policies say rehabilitation programs are not a strong enough defense against the possibility that drug and alcohol users in public transportation jobs will suffer a relapse -- even after being caught and rehabilitated.

"The people who have been through treatment are never truly cured," said Mark A. de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace and a lawyer whose Washington firm advises corporations on drug policies.

In a brief filed recently with the U.S. Supreme Court on a drug-testing case, the institute pointed to studies that indicate a high recidivism rate among rehabilitated addicts. A 1998 study of drug users found that five years after undergoing an intensive rehabilitation program, 79 percent had resumed using drugs. A 1996 study found that, among alcoholics who had completed the Alcoholics Anonymous program and stayed sober for at least two years, 41 percent relapsed, some after a decade of abstinence.

Epps, 53, a 25-year veteran of the Maryland Transit Administration, had failed a drug test in 1994. He was sent to an employee rehabilitation program and was later allowed to return to his job driving light-rail trains. On Feb. 13, Epps apparently fell asleep at the wheel and his train broke through one barrier, slammed into a bumper and derailed.

Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed that Epps had tested positive for cocaine in a post-accident drug test. Epps told investigators he had taken a Tylenol 3 tablet with codeine as well as the oxycodone. Epps was fired Feb. 17 for not reporting the oxycodone use, and state transportation official say they will review the MTA's drug policies.

Still, the public transportation industry has expended considerable effort over the past 13 years to keep drinkers and drug abusers out of jobs in which they're responsible for human lives.

Most of the drug policies trace their origins to Ricky Gates, a Conrail freight engineer who had a history of drunken driving arrests when he took control of a freight train on Jan. 4, 1987. Gates had been smoking marijuana when he ran through four switches and slammed into an Amtrak passenger train in Chase. Seventeen people were killed, 187 were injured and Gates went to prison.

Two years later, drug testing was enacted for commercial airline pilots and air traffic controllers. And in 1991, Congress authorized mandatory random drug testing for all agencies under the federal Department of Transportation. Today, 8.1 million people work in so-called "safety-sensitive" jobs under the DOT's umbrella of air, rail, truck and bus jobs.

Positive drug tests in those jobs are now rare, below 1 percent, compared with 5 percent to 10 percent in other industries. Neither Amtrak nor any of the commercial airlines has reported an accident attributable to drug or alcohol use since implementing mandatory drug testing, according to Amtrak and FAA officials.

In most cases, that means airlines try to protect their investment in qualified pilots and offer to rehabilitate them. "Trashing a pilot's career is expensive for the company," said John Mazor, spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association.

Since the 1970s, when hundreds of pilots a year were turned in for alcohol abuse, those who stay sober for two years are often allowed back into the cockpit.

"People should not shrink back and automatically be horrified at the concept of someone who has gone through a rehabilitation program returning to the workplace," Mazor said, adding that recidivism among rehabilitated pilots is "not a problem."

However, some airlines keep secret the details of their rehab programs. US Airways Group Inc. spokesman David Kastelveter said the carrier goes "above and beyond" the FAA's drug-testing rules, that." but he declined to discuss details of the airline's drug-testing policies.

Neither air nor rail companies compile statistics on drug testing, so it's not known how many positive drug tests result in dismissal and how many result in rehabilitation.

"If we do have an employee involved in an accident who tests positive, the chances of expulsion are very high," said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black.

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