A Sober Reminder to Monitor the Mental Health of Drivers

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School bus drivers are people, too. For the vast majority, their compassion, dedication and genuine love of children are the traits that make them at least partly responsible for the most impressive surface transportation safety record there is.

But school bus drivers also have problems like the rest of us. And it’s incumbent upon school districts and bus companies to do all they can to be on the lookout for any mental health issues their employees are having.

That didn’t happen in the case of Louise Rogers, an Alberta school bus driver also responsible for crashing into a parked gravel truck and then into a utility pole on Oct. 18, 2007, killing 9-year-old Kathelynn Occena and injuring three other young students. Rogers was suffering from depression and on anti-depressants and sleeping pills. She was taking over-the-counter medication to wake her up. She even attempted suicide, reports the Calgary Herald, that put the 42-year-old woman in a psych ward about a month before the fatal crash.

Yet, her employer, Third Academy, a special education school with three campuses in the Calgary area, allowed Rogers, who was by then seeing the school psychologist, to remain behind the wheel. This despite the transportation manager being forced to call Rogers many mornings to roust her out of bed and fielding complaints and concerns from citizens on Roger’s erratic driving. This all came out in court in March.

This week, the government issued a dozen recommendations stemming from an inquest into the crash that heard from Rogers that she has no recollection of the crash. The recommendations are that drivers should advise their employers of any mental health issues, counseling or evaluation by a health professional before being allowed to drive. The inquest also said that drivers should be regularly drug tested, including upon being hired, and they should disclose to their employers any medications they are using.

Other recommendations included: banning the use of handheld devices while driving; improving training standards by small school-bus operators; requiring a medical professional’s note before a driver who has been struggling with mental health issues can return to work; formulating a policy for handling driver complaints; and installing video surveillance on buses.

Alberta’s classified driver licensing regulations, of course, govern drug screenings for prospective school bus drivers to receive their Class 1, 2 or 4 license, but only that such testing “may be required” and that a medical report is required when first applying for a license and every five years after that until age 45. Then the medical exams go to every two years until age 65, when they’re required annually.

Why is there no concrete regulation on drug testing? That’s precisely what the inquest wants to know. Nearly a year after the crash, a review of school bus crashes in Alberta turned up a 130-page report that recommended the province adopt the American School Bus Council driver hiring practices and criteria that call for pre-employment drug and alcohol screening.