On a typical school day, almost half a million school-bus drivers take America’s kids to school, field trips, athletic events and the like. How many of those drivers are impaired by drugs or alcohol? Nobody knows and it is tough to even guess.
Stateline, an investigative journalism project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, tried to locate the statistics and reported their findings early this year. Only about 30 of the 268 state departments of education, law enforcement agencies and other sources they contacted could offer any information whatsoever. And that data was spotty.
The disaster signals are real
Local news stories from one town after another confirm there is a problem.
For example, a citizen noticed a bus full of high school students swerving down a North Dakota road in early 2019. Police found the driver had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.12. The school district conducts random testing of 25% of its drivers “periodically,” and the driver had tested negative the month before.
In the very same week, a Newark driver overdosed and hit a tree with a bus full of elementary school students. Authorities successfully administered Narcan, and the driver was relieved of driving duties, pending an investigation.
Recent investigative report gets traction
Particularly after the Stateline report, safety groups are urging tougher laws to force transportation companies, school districts and local authorities to take more care in meeting their duties and responsibilities to prevent tragedies from impaired bus drivers.
A new federal database keeps a list of drivers with revoked clearances to drive commercial vehicles due to drug and alcohol violations. Schools must submit their incidents to it and must check if new drivers are listed.
However, only beginning in 2023 will states have to check the database to clear people for commercial driving.
Reforms can be difficult and slow
As part of their DUI sentencing, options most states use “ignition interlock” devices, which are essentially breathalyzer ignition switches that keep drivers with high BACs from starting a car equipped with the device.
The National Safety Council wants every school bus in America equipped with an ignition interlock, but the cost and other limitations present obstacles.
Other proposals include lowering the BAC limits for commercial drivers, training local fleet supervisors to recognize signs of impairment, lengthening the time a driver must wait to drive after having a drink, and more.
If recent shortages of commercial drivers continue, the public may need to keep the pressure on school and other officials to resist negligence and carelessness in putting children in the care of impaired school bus drivers.