FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The New York School Bus Contractors Association (NYSBCA) and the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT) provided testimony during a Senate hearing on Thursday regarding a proposed bill that would mandate alcohol ignition interlocks on school buses.
As SBF previously reported, the legislation would require the devices to be installed in school buses as a way to prevent drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel of the bus.
The breath test device links to a vehicle’s ignition system and prevents it from starting if alcohol is detected in the driver’s breath.
NYSBCA was represented at the hearing by school bus safety expert and association board member Paul Mori. NYAPT was represented by Executive Director Peter Mannella.
“As champions of school bus safety, the New York School Bus Contractors Association believes there are better solutions to help prevent DWI and further protect our children,” Mori said. “When considering the excellent safety record of the industry, the technical challenges of ignition interlocks, and cost, the association believes that mandating ignition interlock devices on every single school bus in New York is simply not a rational response to a few isolated, yet widely publicized, incidences.”
Mori, who is a senior manager at Huntington Coach on Long Island, has 32 years of experience in school bus safety. Officials said he rejected the logic behind the push for mandatory interlocks on all school buses, and instead offered proven solutions used by industry leaders in pupil transportation safety.
While he said any case of an intoxicated bus driver is unacceptable, Mori noted that school buses continue to be the safest mode of transportation for schoolchildren.
“School buses are by far the safest way for a child to get to and from school in New York — statistically almost 40 times safer than riding in a car,” Mori said. “Overall, New York’s school districts and contractors are doing a phenomenal job at transporting more than 2 million students to and from school every day.”
Mori went on to lay out the numerous flaws with the proposal for mandatory ignition interlocks on all school buses, from using a “guilty until proven innocent” approach with all school bus drivers to the technical problems with interlocks.
“The interlocks have to be engaged and re-engaged every time a school bus is started and re-started,” he said. “Any false positives (mouthwash) or other problems with the device would lead to significant employee and transportation management issues. And because these devices require activation from a driver while the vehicle is running to be effective, this could create major distractions for the driver and, ultimately, be very dangerous for students riding the bus.”
Mori also spoke about the cost of installation, maintenance, calibration, training and additional staffing involved with mandating the devices.
“The estimated increase in costs to cash-strapped school districts and taxpayers could be over $100 million,” he said, “with recurring costs to school districts and taxpayers of more than $60 million a year when you factor in device cost, training, testing, maintenance and replacement.”
As alternatives to mandating alcohol ignition interlock devices on all school buses to help prevent DWI, NYSBCA suggests increasing and expanding random drug and alcohol testing of all drivers of all school vehicles.
While many contractors already subject drivers to random testing, officials said that under the current law, drug and alcohol testing only applies to certain license holders. Some drivers, including those driving school buses with 14 or fewer passengers, are excluded from the testing pool.
Another solution, the association said, is for New York to follow the federal minimum of 50% random drug testing, and increase random alcohol testing to at least 25% of the school bus driver pool, up from the 10% which is currently required.
Other expanded safety measures supported by the NYSBCA include additional employee and management education programs, increasing the training for supervisors in drug and alcohol use recognition, and better enforcement throughout the industry of laws requiring the “direct observation” of a school bus driver before his or her shift.
NYSBCA also stated its strong support for increased penalties for drivers convicted of operating a school bus under the influence.
In addition, NYSBCA suggested that the state could also help prevent problem drivers from getting behind the wheel of a school bus by having the state Department of Motor Vehicles keep a registry of drivers who have been disqualified from work due to failed drug or alcohol tests.
“We realize that even one DWI or incident of driving under the influence of alcohol among school bus drivers is one too many, but again, now is the time to be rational and judicious in our approach,” Mori concluded. “There are a number of smart improvements that can be made to our current laws to keep our school buses as safe as possible; all of which will be more effective than mandating expensive and untested ignition interlock devices.”
NYAPT also opposes the legislation under consideration in the state Legislature, for many of the same reasons as NYSBCA, including the cost of alcohol ignition interlock devices, operational issues and concerns about their reliability.
Like the contractor association, NYAPT attested to the positive safety record of the state's school bus drivers, and the rigorous testing, training and monitoring that school bus drivers undergo was explained.
Mannella also provided recommendations for alternatives to the legislation under consideration. For example, the association suggested requiring that each school bus driver is observed at least once per day, preferrably before the beginning of each run. Another suggestion was to increase the random alcohol testing annual percentage rate for school bus drivers to 100% of the drivers on the roster for each operation.
Mannella offered suggestions related to discipline and penalties as well, including providing that a school bus carrier (either a private contractor or a school district) may terminate as a school bus driver any individual who tests positive on a valid drug or alcohol test.
Also important is the school board's roll, according to Mannella. He suggested on behalf of NYAPT that school districts be allowed to implement practices related to the frequency and nature of driver observations and drug/alcohol testing that exceeds federal or state minimum requirements, provided that the practices are carried out in accordance with the school board's adopted policy.