Alcohol and Other Drug Use in Commercial Transportation
Remarks delivered by Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
at the 13th International Conference on
Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety
Adelaide, South Australia
August 13, 1995

Thank you for this opportunity to address you on a subject that has been on the forefront of the Safety Board's agenda for many years -- the eradication of alcohol and drug use in commercial transportation. We've emphasized our commitment to this issue by placing it on our Most Wanted list of safety improvements. In recent years, the Board has released special studies on Alcohol/drug use in aviation, trucking and railroad operations.

Much has changed in the United States since we reported to you at T-92 in Cologne, Germany. Indeed, there have been significant reductions in the pervasiveness of alcohol-related crashes in both commercial and non-commercial transportation. There have been gains in employee drug and alcohol testing programs and reductions in the rate of positive drug tests in commercial transportation over a long period of time. This despite the fact that until recently, very little was known about the use of impairing drugs, including alcohol, by the operators of trains, airplanes, ships and heavy trucks, although in the United States, the data indicated that a significant problem existed and that strong action was required to control it.

In the highway mode alone, 40 percent of fatalities are estimated to be alcohol related. While this is an improvement from 50 percent a decade ago, it still represents about 17,000 deaths a year in my country.

Since last year, I have had the honor to chair the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The Board is an independent accident investigation agency chartered by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable causes, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. We have no regulatory authority and no financial incentives to promote our recommendations.

The Safety Board has been on the vanguard of combating alcohol use in transportation in the United States through its recommendation process -- age-21 laws and the detection of alcohol problems among aviation pilots, for example -- and in its leadership of such initiatives as the Administrative License Revocation Coalition. This coalition, which should be a model for similar endeavors in countries around the world, is a cooperative effort between public and private agencies to promote State laws for administrative removal of drivers licenses for alcohol offenses, zero BAC laws for those under age 21 and lower BAC laws for all drivers.

We earlier reported to you that the Safety Board began documenting the abuse of alcohol and other drugs in transportation accidents in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, it became clear that a problem existed in all modes of transportation and that not much was being done about it. In 1983, the Safety Board recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) issue rules to prohibit the use of alcohol or other drugs for transportation workers in safety-sensitive positions while on duty or for a specified period before duty.

In 1974, we had made recommendations specifically aimed at the railroad industry. Eleven years later, in 1985, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) of the DOT issued a final rule on "Control of Alcohol and Drug Use in Railroad Operations." The rule required alcohol/drug testing after accidents, for reasonable cause, and for those applying for employment. Following additional recommendations by the NTSB, the DOT in 1988 issued drug testing rules for more than 4,000,000 persons working in safety sensitive occupations in all areas of commercial transportation.

As you may know, the U.S. testing rules apply to Federal transportation employees and to private sector transportation employees in safety-sensitive positions. The original DOT rules specified urine tests for the presence of marijuana, opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, and phencyclidine (PCP). In addition to the pre-employment, post-accident, and reasonable cause tests required for railroad workers, the rules added random testing in all modes, including railroad.

The random test rate was 25 percent of covered employees in the first year and 50 percent in subsequent years. There were many differences in the rules among the various transportation modes including a lack of test result reporting in all modes except aviation and rail and omission of alcohol tests in all modes except rail. Further, the rules do not separate post-accident testing for more comprehensive blood analysis as requested by the NTSB. However, as a result of landmark legislation, many of the requirements were improved.

Sparked by the fatal derailment of a New York City subway train, in which the operator had a BAC of 0.21 percent more than 13 hours after the crash, the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991 changed the face of drug testing in the United States:

Although the law did not include the commercial maritime industry as regulated by the United States Coast Guard, nearly 8 million transportation personnel in safety sensitive positions are now included in the program. Notably, every holder of a commercial drivers license (CDL) is included. That means every driver of a bus and large truck in the United States is now subject to testing regardless of whether the driver operates in intra- or interstate commerce.

During the regulatory process of implementing the legislation, a number of key changes were made in the commercial transportation alcohol and drug testing system. The drug test rules now allow the random drug test rate to be reduced from 50 percent to 25 percent of covered employees if the industry-wide drug test positive rate on random tests is below 1 percent for two consecutive years. When an industry qualifies for the 25 percent testing rate, it must maintain the positive rate below 1 percent. All transportation industries are now required to report test results.

Alcohol testing is the major change required by the Omnibus Testing Act. In general, the rules implementing the act prohibit covered employees from performing safety sensitive functions:

I hasten to point out that there are differences in each mode of transportation that are specific to that mode. For additional detail, the rules were published in the Federal Register on February 15, 1994.

In general, the rules require implementation on January 1, 1995 for large employers (generally 50 or more covered employees) and January 1, 1996 for all other employers. All other existing drug testing rules and alcohol testing in rail remain in effect until the new rules are implemented. Certain transportation industries have filed suit regarding some aspects of the rules. For example, some trucking industry organizations objected to pre-employment alcohol screening, characterizing it as "an intelligence test." The Secretary of Transportation has agreed that these tests are an unnecessary burden on the industry.

Let me discuss some exciting news from two industries where drug test results have been reported for several years and on a special program in the trucking industry.

Aviation

At T-92, we reported that the felony conviction of three former Northwest Airlines pilots for flying a passenger jetliner while intoxicated brought new focus to the problem of flying under the influence of alcohol. In 1990, the FAA issued new rules designed to identify and ground pilots involved in alcohol or drug-related motor vehicle offenses that result in convictions or administrative actions. Pilots applying for a medical certificate must consent to the release of information from the National Driver Register (NDR) to enable the FAA to obtain and review motor vehicle offense information pertaining to the applicant.

The FAA can deny or take action to suspend a certificate of a pilot who receives two or more alcohol or drug-related convictions or administrative actions within a three-year period. To date, over 1,000 cases have been referred to the FAA's chief counsel for administrative action.

We do not consider this an abstract exercise. Alcohol and drug use has taken its toll even in aviation. Although from 1983 to 1988, no pilot in a fatal commuter crash tested positive for alcohol, one of these pilots did test positive for a metabolite of cocaine. In 1988, a Trans-Colorado Airlines, Fairchild Metro III, operating as Continental Express, with two crew members and 15 passengers on board, crashed short of the runway at Durango, Colorado, killing the two crew members and seven of the passengers. The NTSB found that the captain's use of cocaine degraded his performance and contributed to the accident.

For on-demand (unscheduled) air taxi fatal accidents, the percentage of those pilots tested who were positive for alcohol declined from 7.4 in the 1975 to 1981 period to 1.8 in the 1983 to 1988 period. In addition, although not concerning commercial transportation, a Safety Board study released in 1992 showed that positive alcohol findings in fatally injured general aviation pilots had fallen from 10 percent in the mid-1970s to 6.7 percent in the mid-'80s.

An aviation success story in the United States is the effectiveness of the drug testing program. For the fourth year in a row, less than 1 percent of aviation industry employees and job applicants tested positive for illegal drugs. In 1993, aviation companies conducted 268,809 drug tests on employees and applicants for safety-related positions. Of these, 2,193 or 0.82 percent tested positive. Pre-employment tests accounted for 1,096 positive tests or 50 percent of all positive test results; most of the remaining ones were found through random testing. The most frequently identified drugs were, in descending order of positive results: marijuana (1,220), cocaine (850), amphetamines (159), opiates (98) and phencyclidine (31).

Tested personnel included aircraft maintenance, security screeners, flight attendants, dispatchers, flight crew and air traffic controllers. Employees testing positive for illegal drugs are removed from the safety related position and applicants who test positive are not hired.

Railroad

As I've noted, in 1974, the Safety Board recommended that the FRA, "...prohibit the use of narcotics and intoxicants by employees for a specific period prior to their reporting for duty and while they are on duty". Accidents in which alcohol and other drugs were involved continued to occur. In 1987, the Safety Board investigated a total of 156 selected accidents in which toxicological tests for alcohol or other drugs were available in 103 cases. In 29 of these accidents, one or more railroad or rail/rapid transit employees used alcohol and/or drugs, including prescription drugs.

My country was shocked when, in January 1987, a train of freight locomotives improperly passed a stop signal and entered a main line track in Chase, Maryland. A passenger train traveling at 120 miles per hour crashed into the locomotives, killing 16 people and injuring 174 others. Both the freight train engineer and the brake man were found to be heavy or frequent users of marijuana and were impaired by marijuana at the time of the crash.

The results of the Federal Railroad Administration's employee testing program showed significant reductions when we last reported the 1991 results to you. I am pleased to report that the trend of lower positive test rates has continued in 1992 and 1993. In mandatory tests conducted on rail workers after accidents, 1.5 percent tested positive for alcohol or other prohibited drugs in 1991, 2.1 percent in 1992 and 2.0 percent in 1993. This is a substantial decrease from the 6.0 percent level in 1988. In the reasonable cause tests, 2.1 percent were positive in 1991 and 1.9 percent were positive in 1992 and 1993. This, too, is a substantial decrease from 5.4 percent in 1988.In 1990, random testing was introduced. In 1991, 0.9 percent were found positive for drugs; that rate decreased to 0.7 percent by 1993. The railroad industry has also been permitted to reduce its random drug test rate to 25 percent of covered employees.

Commercial Trucking

At our previous meeting in Cologne, we reported that drivers of heavy and medium trucks with positive BACs are involved in about 750 fatal crashes in the United States each year, 7,700 injury crashes, and 4,750 property damage-only crashes. We also reported on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety roadside voluntary survey of truck drivers in which 29 percent had evidence of drugs in their blood or urine.

Cannabinoids were found in 15 percent, nonprescription stimulants in 12 percent, prescription stimulants in 5 percent, cocaine metabolites in 2 percent, and alcohol in less than 1 percent. In 1992, we reported on a 1989 FHWA audit of more than 143,000 truck driver drug tests. The overall positive test result rate was 2.1 percent. By category of tests, 2.8 percent were positive on pre-employment test, 0.8 percent positive on biennial tests and 14.2 percent positive for reasonable cause tests. However, these results were not consistent with the IIHS or the Safety Board's study.

In the Safety Board's study of fatally-injured truck drivers, we found that thirty three percent of the drivers tested positive for one or more drugs of abuse. The most prevalent drugs found were alcohol and marijuana (13 percent each), followed by cocaine (9 percent), methamphetamines or amphetamines (7 percent), and other stimulants (8 percent). Forty one percent of those drivers who tested positive for drugs of abuse were found to be multiple drug users, with almost 11 percent positive for three or more drugs of abuse. In that study, we recommended that the Federal Highway Administration conduct a study of roadside drug and alcohol testing. The Omnibus Testing Act I referred to earlier included a provision requiring that study and results are now available.

A one-year pilot study was conducted on interstate and major state roads in Nebraska, Utah, Minnesota, and New Jersey. Because of variations in State laws, only Nebraska and Utah could conduct random, suspicionless drug and alcohol tests. Minnesota and New Jersey conducted probable-cause based testing supplemented by voluntary tests. The study found an overall positive test rate of 4.6 percent for drugs and 0.2 percent for alcohol, substantially lower than the 29 percent found in the IIHS study. Both the IIHS and FHWA studies found an alcohol positive test rate of less than 1 percent.

Marijuana was the most frequently identified drug, followed by cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, and PCP. This random roadside study provides the best data currently available on the prevalence of alcohol and drug use by commercial truck drivers in these States, and is a source of encouragement for all of us who hope to see responsible behavior on the part of those operating within our transportation system.

Approximately 7 million holders of a commercial drivers license are now subject to alcohol and other drug testing and the regulations now require test result reporting. Therefore, I have great confidence that we will soon have even more comprehensive data to report to you and that we can, as in aviation and rail, report reductions in positive drug and alcohol test rates.

Other Modes of Transportation

The maritime industry was not included in the Omnibus Testing Act. We remain concerned that the U.S. Coast Guard does not include uninspected fishing vessels in its post-accident testing program. We note, however, that all merchant mariners are now required to be tested for drug use when applying for new or renewed licenses, certificates of registry, or other credentials. We look forward to better data reporting as well. As I noted earlier, the crash of a subway train at Union Station in New York sparked Congressional passage of the Omnibus Testing Act and granted specific safety and testing authority to the Federal Transit Administration. Most of the rail rapid transit systems in the U.S. have had some sort of alcohol/drug testing programs. A study of substance abuse in the transit industry showed that drug and alcohol use was highest at transit agencies with limited or no testing programs. We believe that the Omnibus Testing Act will help standardize and improve the testing and prevention programs used by the industry.

Conclusions

The U.S. Federal government has been exceptionally successful in its drug testing programs in recent years with at least two agencies -- the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration -- having great success in reducing positive test rates. I have every expectation that other transportation industries will achieve similar success and that we will be able to document that success as fully as the rail and aviation industries have done. Any attempts to further weaken our currently successful programs should be very carefully considered.

I would like to note that the transportation workforce has a very low positive drug test rate compared to the total workforce in the United States. A large independent testing lab reported that less than three percent of transportation workers in safety-sensitive positions tested positive for drugs in 1992 and 1993 while about 10 percent of the general workforce tested positive in these years. That said, there must be no tolerance, absolutely zero, for alcohol and drug use in transportation. We have had great success, but we are only half-way there. Obviously, testing alone will not solve this problem. Testing does have a deterrent effect, but effective programs must also include strategies to identify and treat abusers before it is too late.

Thank you again for inviting me here today, and let's keep working for a drug-free transportation system.

 

Jim Hall's Speeches