The alarming arrest of two Long Island school bus drivers within nine days on charges of driving while intoxicated doesn't automatically indicate a widespread problem, but it does require a new look at ways to make school buses safer.
The first incident occurred on Oct. 3 when a minibus careened into a Syosset house, just after leaving St. Edward the Confessor School with five children on board. Driver Frederick Flowers, employed by First Student Inc., a national company, was charged with multiple felonies.
Then on Wednesday, drivers on the Long Island Expressway in Ronkonkoma called 911 to report a school bus with a shredded front tire weaving between lanes. Police said they found a half-empty bottle of vodka in the center console and the driver, Robert Stundis, failed a breath test. He worked for Acme Bus Co. and had just dropped off students from a middle school in the Three Village School District. He faces a felony DWI charge.
Criminal penalties recently were increased for those who drive under the influence with children on board. And bus companies must do background checks and routine drug and alcohol testing of drivers.
But after-the-fact criminal punishment and civil liability are of little comfort to those whose children ride buses every day. Can there be a way to prevent this risky behavior before there is a tragedy?
A bill pending in the State Senate would require interlock devices on all newly manufactured school buses and reimburse school districts for retrofitting existing ones. The bill, sponsored by Sen. George Maziarz (R-Niagara), cites six drunken-driver incidents on school buses upstate in the past three years. It essentially makes drivers take a Breathalyzer test before the bus ignition will start. The bill has no sponsor in the Assembly, something the six members of the Long Island delegation who sit on the Transportation Committee might want to look into.
And while the lock might stop those who abuse alcohol, we shudder to think how many bus drivers could be using legal and illegal drugs that impair their judgment.