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marcus gee

A proposal to introduce random drug and alcohol testing for Toronto Transit Commission drivers is one of those cases where rights clash. In this case, the drivers' right to privacy faces the riders' right to safety. It is clear which should prevail.

It goes without saying that an impaired driver in charge of a transit vehicle is a grave threat to public safety. If we could be confident that this was an almost-unheard-of situation, then testing would not be necessary.

Unfortunately, the TTC itself concedes that a small number of drivers are found to be under the influence every year. Over a 30-month period from 2006 to 2008, 39 employees were caught in alcohol or drug-related incidents. A spokesman said that the numbers have not been improving under the transit agency's existing policy on intoxicants.

That policy allows for testing when someone applies for a job, after an accident or an incident and when supervisors believe they have reasonable cause (booze on the breath, slurred speech and so on). Random testing is the next logical step. TTC staff are proposing saliva and Breathalyzer tests that would determine not if a driver had used drugs or alcohol some time in the recent past, but whether he or she was under the influence at the time of the test.

That is a powerful deterrent for those who might be tempted to come to work intoxicated under the belief that no one would notice. The TTC staff says that in the United States, where random testing of transit drivers is common, the proportion of positive tests for alcohol dropped to 0.15 per cent from 0.25 per cent from 1995 to 2008 and for drugs to 0.82 per cent from 1.76 per cent in a survey by the Federal Transit Administration. Another U.S. study found that random alcohol testing for truck drivers was followed by a sharp drop in fatal crashes of large trucks.

The TTC proposal comes just weeks after a woman was killed in a bus accident on Lawrence Avenue East. A bus driver was charged with possession of cannabis and criminal negligence causing death, although an investigating officer at the time said he did not appear impaired.

Testing might prevent tragedies. The TTC says that both Greyhound and Coach Canada drivers are subjected to random testing. Why not TTC drivers?

Opponents of testing argue that it turns the employer into a snoop and discriminates against employees with drug or alcohol problems. The TTC's union, which was oddly silent on the proposal on Monday, has been a steadfast opponent of random testing. When it was proposed in 2008, union chief Bob Kinnear called it a "shameless attempt by senior management to deflect attention away from their incompetence when it comes to protecting our members' health and safety." The union as an ongoing grievance action against even the current testing policy.

But surely the TTC has the responsibility to take all reasonable measures to ensure that its drivers are sober on the job, especially when lives are on the line. It is one thing for, say, a major bank to propose mandatory drug testing for its employees, who handle money, but whose decisions do not affect human safety. It is another for a transit agency to insist on testing for those who sit behind the wheel of a bus full of commuters.

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