Although the Southern California Rapid Transit Disitrict is exploring mandatory random drug testing of its employees, the South Bay's two major municipal bus lines say they have no immediate plans to institute similar programs for their drivers.
Officials of the Gardena Municipal Bus Line and the Torrance Transit System, the two systems that serve most of the South Bay, said last week that their drivers have not been involved in any drug-related accidents and that they do not believe that random drug testing is necessary.
Both systems cited their safety records in deciding there was no need for such testing. Torrance bus drivers were involved in 54 accidents last year, a rate of 3.8 accidents per 100,000 miles driven. Bus drivers in Gardena had 50 accidents, an accident rate of 4.3 per 100,000 miles.
This compares to an accident rate of of 4.4 per 100,000 miles reported by the RTD last year. However, statistics compiled by the the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration indicate that the RTD's accident rate may be as high as 7.4 per 100,000 miles, based on figures it received from the district. The RTD argues that the figures it provided included the number of claims filed, which exceed the number of accidents.
The RTD, which also runs several routes through the South Bay, does not keep separate regional statistics on accidents. However, an RTD spokesman said 1,096 claims were filed last year against the RTD from the South Bay.
While neither bus system is planning to test for drugs immediately, both Gardena and Torrance are in the initial stages of discussing with employee groups the possibility of some type of drug testing for all city employees, including bus drivers.
Torrance Councilman Mark Wirth, chairman of his council's transportation committee and vice chairman of the the Southern California Assn. of Governments' transportation and communications committee, last week asked his staff to report to him on how Torrance is dealing with drug problems among city employees.
Wirth said he is not aware of any such problems, but added, "I want to take a cautious, preventive approach before we have a problem."
Torrance Personnel Director Elaine Winer said her staff is developing a policy to deal with city employees who have drug problems. She said the policy will be presented to the City Council in about 90 days. Winer said it is premature to say whether mandatory random drug testing will be part of that policy.
"It's still questionable if you can (legally) have random drug testing," she said.
Mitch Lansdell, assistant city manager and personnel director for Gardena, said he has held preliminary talks with officials from the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 30, which represents bus drivers and most clerical employees, about developing a drug testing program. But Lansdell said no specific aspects of a program have been discussed.
The RTD board two weeks ago ordered General Manager John Dyer to explore random drug testing, particularly for its 5,000 drivers, after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to push for unannounced tests.
The recent interest in drug testing has been sparked by a series of bus accidents in which at least two RTD drivers were found to have been under the influence of drugs. This month, RTD drivers have been involved in four major accidents that injured more than 50 people. RTD officials have argued that drug use among drivers is not widespread. But in the last year, 43 employees, about half of them drivers, have been fired because of drug use, according to district officials.
Officials in both Gardena and Torrance said no bus driver in those cities has been fired because of drug or alcohol abuse, nor has any accident occurred in which a driver was suspected of being under the influence.
Higher Accident Rates
Officials in both cities said last year's accident rates were higher than in previous years. Whit Ballenger, director of transportation in Gardena, said the city had been averaging only about 2.5 accidents per 100,000 miles driven. Gardena, which runs four routes with 36 buses, earlier this year received a second-place award for its safety record from the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council.
Ballenger attributed last year's higher rate to a change in accident reporting procedures. For example, he said that if a side mirror were knocked off a bus this year, it would be reported as an accident. But in the past a similar incident would not have been reported as an accident.
Arnold Sylvia, assistant transit operations supervisor in Torrance, said his city's bus accident rate had been between 2.5 and 3 per 100,000 miles.
Sylvia could give no reason why last year's rate was higher, but said that drivers were to blame only in 15 of the 54 collisions reported that year. Torrance has eight routes and a fleet of 45 buses.
The federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration keeps statistics on municipal bus lines, but does not rank them because cities use different methods in defining an accident, a spokeswoman for the UMTA said.