Stateline, an Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts
By Jenni Bergal
After school bus driver Carole Ann Etheridge dropped off 31 middle and high school students in Walton County, Georgia, one August morning in 2017, she was summoned to the principal’s office.
A worried parent had contacted the school system after getting a text from her child on the bus, who said Etheridge was driving erratically and had crossed the center line into oncoming traffic.
The school resource officer, Walton Sheriff’s Office Lt. Charlie Rodriguez, gave Etheridge an initial breath test that showed she had a blood alcohol level of .089 — more than twice the legal limit for commercial drivers. She failed field sobriety tests and was arrested on charges of DUI and child endangerment, according to a police report. In a formal breath test a few hours later, she blew a .048.
Etheridge said she’d been drinking with friends the night before, and when Rodriguez checked her purse at the jail, records show, he found four empty shot bottles of Stolichnaya vodka, a nearly half-full bottle of Silver Tequila and four bottles of prescription drugs in her name, including anti-anxiety and sleeping pills.
Parents are still outraged that Etheridge hadn’t been stopped before she started her route that morning.
My son could have been dead. What if she went around the S-curve and the bus had flipped?” said Katrina Drlik of Loganville, Georgia. “What the hell was she doing getting behind the wheel of a school bus? How could they have allowed it?”
The Etheridge case was one of 118 since 2015 that Stateline identified in which a school bus driver was arrested or cited by police on suspicion of driving a bus impaired by alcohol or drugs. Hundreds of other drivers have failed random testing while on duty.
Government officials and transportation safety advocates have considered a variety of strategies to tackle the issue of impaired school bus drivers.
- Mandating visual check-ins to make sure that drivers don’t show signs of being drunk or high.
- Beefing up random drug and alcohol testing to deter drivers from being impaired while on duty.
- Putting ignition interlocks on school buses to prevent drunken drivers from taking off in the first place.
- Turning to a new federal database to ferret out drivers who have previous drug and alcohol testing violations.
“There won’t necessarily be one silver bullet that gets us to the end, but there has to be a coordinated effort at many different levels — federal, state and local — to figure out how to address this,” said Maureen Vogel, a spokeswoman for the Illinois-based National Safety Council, which focuses on eliminating preventable deaths.
“At the end of the day, it’s unacceptable to put a child on a bus with an impaired driver.”
Etheridge’s attorney, James Wall, describes her as “a very nice lady” who volunteered at church and never had any problems with the law. At the time of the incident, he said, she was going through a difficult period — a divorce and her father’s death.
Etheridge admitted she had a couple of beers and shots of tequila the night before to celebrate her birthday, according to a police report. Wall said she and her friends had decided to rent a hotel room that night to avoid driving home.
She should have cut off her drinking the night before,” Wall said. “She had to be in the bus around 5:30 the next morning. She was probably sleepy or drowsy, dozing off on the bus, rather than being so impaired that she was all over the road.”
Etheridge pleaded guilty to driving a school bus under the influence and to child endangerment. She was sentenced in April 2019 to 10 years, one of which was to be served in prison but would be suspended if she completed a residential treatment program. For the remaining nine years, she got probation.
Wall said Etheridge felt awful about what happened.
“Every time we went to court, she cried. When she entered her plea, she cried and sobbed,” he said. “She loved her children. She was very remorseful because these were her kids.”
Etheridge did not respond to a letter seeking comment.
Etheridge picked up her bus that morning without any close interaction with a supervisor or staffer, said Callen Moore, spokeswoman for the Walton County Board of Education. That’s not uncommon in some school districts across the country.
Because of the Etheridge case, Walton County school officials now require bus drivers to print their name and do a visual check-in every morning with another driver who has been given additional training and responsibilities, Moore said.
In Oldham County, Kentucky, school officials beefed up training last year after a bus driver was convicted in March of driving drunk after crashing into several poles with more than 30 students on board, spokeswoman Lori McDowell said. The district now requires that all bus drivers, not just supervisors, learn how to spot signs of impairment when their colleagues pick up and return their buses to the schools.
Meanwhile in New York, where at least four school bus drivers have been arrested since 2012 for operating a school bus while allegedly intoxicated, legislators in 2018 passed stricter random testing requirements.
The bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandates that all school bus drivers be subject to random drug and alcohol testing, regardless of the size of the bus, closing a loophole that exempted drivers of smaller buses with fewer than 16 passengers. It also prohibits school bus drivers from drinking or using a drug for eight hours before going on duty, rather than the previous six hours.
Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said lawmakers in other states may follow suit and toughen testing standards.
But Democratic New York Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, who sponsored the random testing bill, said after learning of Stateline’s findings that more changes may be needed in her state.
Lupardo said she was disturbed to discover that states typically don’t gather or analyze data about impaired school bus drivers.
While it’s fine to put in place something that endorses this type of random testing, it doesn’t give us the true scope of the problem,” Lupardo said. “To be effective more broadly, it would be enormously helpful if we started capturing this data.”
School transportation officials say they’re hoping a new federal database will help.
This month, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration launched a national clearinghouse containing information about all drivers with commercial licenses, including school bus drivers, who have drug and alcohol testing program violations and are not permitted to operate commercial vehicles.
The idea is to make it easier for employers to do their due diligence and make it harder for drivers who job-hop to conceal violations. It also will help the federal government determine whether employers are complying with testing and reporting requirements.
Employers, including school districts and school bus contractors, will be required to submit to the clearinghouse information about drivers who fail or refuse drug or alcohol tests, whether during their pre-employment screening or after they are hired. They also must query the database for all current and prospective employees before allowing them to operate a commercial vehicle.
Spokesman Duane DeBruyne wrote in an email that the agency doesn’t break out data specific to school bus drivers. Nor does it currently have information about those who have failed or refused random testing, but that will change once the clearinghouse gets under way, he said.
School transportation officials say the clearinghouse should help employers more thoroughly screen bus driver candidates.
The clearinghouse has the potential to be a game changer in this regard,” said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, a trade association for private transportation companies that contract with school districts.
While the clearinghouse may help with data collection and pre-screening, it won’t necessarily prevent a drunken or drugged bus driver from getting behind the wheel.
That’s why some transportation safety advocates are pushing for ignition interlocks on school buses. These mechanisms are like breathalyzers, in which a driver breathes into a tube linked to a vehicle’s ignition system. The vehicle won’t start for drivers with alcohol on their breath.
In New York, the legislature considered a bill in 2013 that would have required every school bus to have an ignition interlock. But it never got out of committee, facing stiff opposition from school bus contractors and the New York Association for Pupil Transportation.
Opponents said it was a “guilty until proven innocent” approach that also would be too costly and technically challenging. Instead, they proposed expanding random testing and better enforcement through direct observation.
In Rhode Island, Democratic state Rep. Charlene Lima tried to get a similar ignition interlock bill passed in 2017, after a school bus driver who had driven a boys’ track team back from a meet was arrested on DUI charges. She blew a .241 in her first test at the police station, according to a police report.
Lima’s bill didn’t get out of committee either, but she said she isn’t done pushing for changes that would prevent school bus drivers from driving drunk. “We can’t play Russian roulette with the lives of our children,” she said.
Chris Turner, a program director at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an international association of commercial vehicle safety officials, agrees that every school bus should be equipped with some sort of detection device.
Highway safety groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Safety Council also support the idea.
But David Kelly, executive director of the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers, a trade association, said that to his knowledge, there is no formal ignition interlock school bus program anywhere in the country, though in France and Finland they have been mandatory for years.
“In some places, you have a strong union you have to deal with and you have collective bargaining agreements,” he said. “Bus drivers are the main opposition. And when you’re trying to recruit drivers, that is an issue as well.”
Ignition interlocks typically cost between $2 and $3 a day, including monitoring, for a regular vehicle, Kelly said. He didn’t know what it would cost to put them on school buses.
Some school transportation officials say ignition interlocks are a tough sell because many districts already are squeezed for funding and dealing with bus driver shortages.
Others argue that putting an interlock device on every school bus may send a message to drivers that they’re not trusted.
“There’s no question drivers would be PO’d,” said Paul Hilton, executive director of the Cape Cod Collaborative, a Massachusetts-based entity owned by school districts that provides school transportation. “Is it reasonable for the operation and respectful and absolutely necessary? That’s not a political argument I’d want to engage in.”
Lima, the Rhode Island legislator, said she doesn’t buy the argument that ignition interlocks would be too expensive or violate privacy.
We’re not picking on any one individual. We’re just putting a safety device in all of the buses,” she said. “I think we need to be proactive, rather than reactive and wait till a group of children get hurt or die.”
Some transportation safety officials want school districts to expand the pool of drivers who get randomly screened for drugs and alcohol. Currently, the federal government requires that only 25% of the pool get tested for drugs and 10% for alcohol annually, and most school districts don’t go beyond that.
Another recommendation is to step up “reasonable suspicion” training for managers who look for signs that drivers may be impaired. If they find them, they can send the driver for immediate drug and alcohol testing.
Turner, of the commercial vehicle safety group, said his members want the federal law changed to require managers to take a refresher course every three years.
Observing bus drivers before they start their routes can prevent someone who is impaired from getting on the road.
“Supervisors and school transportation directors really need to get out there and be amongst the troops and have their finger on the pulse,” said Robert Berkstresser, a California-based commercial bus expert. “You can tell when someone is responding slower and they have that far-off look in their eyes.”
In some North Carolina counties, MADD teams up with police to put on presentations in schools that teach sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders how to identify a driver, including a school bus driver, who is impaired.
It’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” said Ellen Pitt, a court monitor and crime victim advocate for MADD in Western North Carolina. “A state trooper sometimes pretends to be the driver and has them check his eyes, speech, coordination and smell.”
Surveys found that after the training, the children had become more aware of the potential danger, Pitt said.
Educating children about the warning signs is essential, said Quinton Higgins Jr., a school bus driver and traffic safety advocate in Radcliff, Kentucky. He travels around the state telling his story not only to students, church groups and community organizations but to other school bus drivers.
Higgins and other members of a youth group were passengers on a church bus struck head-on by a pickup truck driven by a drunken driver in Carrollton, Kentucky, in 1988. The gas tank exploded, and 24 children and three adults died.
In 2014, Higgins founded Voice for Change, an advocacy group focused on bus safety and the dangers of impaired driving. He purchased an exact model of the bus that crashed and placed photos of the children who died on the seats. He drives it around Kentucky to his speaking engagements.
Higgins supports ignition interlocks on school buses, daily visual checks and random testing of every driver — anything that he said can help prevent a potential disaster. While most bus drivers with years of experience do a good job and are careful to follow safety standards, he said, there’s lots of turnover in the industry and drivers with an alcohol or drug problem can go unnoticed.
“I guarantee there are school bus drivers out there right now on the road under the influence of prescription drugs or alcohol,” Higgins said. “Every state should be passing a law to deal with this.”
Read the original story, including an overview of the methodology used to conduct this investigation, at PewTrusts.org.