Pubdate: Thu, 17 Aug 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Fredrick Kunkle, Washington Post Staff Writer
Note: Staff writers Maureen O'Hagan and Don Phillips contributed to this 


The head of the Maryland Mass Transit Administration yesterday proposed 
tough new drug testing and disciplinary policies for the agency's bus and 
train drivers, one day after the second Light Rail crash in six months at 
Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Ronald L. Freeland, MTA administrator, urged the immediate firing of any 
employee in a dangerous occupation, including train and bus drivers, found 
to be using illegal drugs. He also recommended stepped-up drug testing, 
longer suspensions for employees who test positive for drugs and 
termination for second offenders.

Freeland said he cannot put the changes into effect, however: His 
recommendations require approval by the union that represents more than 
2,000 of the MTA's 3,000 employees, because the proposals go further than 
the disciplinary measures contained in the current labor agreement.

Tests on the driver involved in Tuesday's accident showed that he did not 
have illegal drugs in his system; the driver in the first accident at BWI, 
on Feb. 13, tested positive for cocaine, MTA officials said then. After 
both crashes, the drivers told officials that they were taking prescription 

Freeland said the MTA has been talking with union leaders about informally 
reopening the collective bargaining agreement over the safety 
recommendations. If the union does not agree, he said, the MTA will take 
the necessary legal steps to force new contract negotiations over the 
safety rules.

Speaking at a news conference in Baltimore, Freeland pledged to restore 
public confidence in the transit system.

"It is my intention not to reopen that station until we have a final 
solution, and we've got to have a solution to keep this from happening a 
third time," Freeland said. The BWI station remains closed, and passengers 
are being bused between the airport and the nearby BWI Business District stop.

Ennis Fonder Jr., president of Local 1300 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, 
the largest of the MTA's unions, declined to comment on the MTA's 
recommendations. Fonder said the union would respond today.

Tuesday's accident occurred when a train, whose driver had been involved in 
three mishaps in the past 13 months, barreled into its final stop at the 
International Terminal and hit a safety barrier, seriously injuring one 

The front of the train jumped the bumping pole, the barrier designed to 
stop the train, and plowed into an overhang on the terminal building. 
Twenty-one people, including the driver, were taken to hospitals for 
treatment of minor injuries.

The MTA said the driver, Dentis David Thomas, 48, of Baltimore, had 
received a three-day suspension after the minor derailment of an empty 
train in the MTA's Glen Burnie rail yard July 7, 1999.

MTA spokesman Anthony Brown said he did not know whether the union defended 
Thomas, a 26-year MTA veteran, against the disciplinary action.

None of Thomas's three accidents prior to Tuesday's caused injuries. 
Two--involving collisions of Light Rail trains with vehicles at railroad 
crossings--were not his fault, the MTA said. The first train-car accident 
occurred Dec. 6 at Gilroy Road, in Hunt Valley north of Baltimore; the 
second happened at Howard Street in Baltimore on April 17.

Approached by an Anne Arundel County police officer minutes after Tuesday's 
crash, Thomas said he had no recollection of what had happened. "I blacked 
out," he told the officer, according to a police report.

MTA officials said Thomas told a National Transportation Safety Board 
investigator that he had been using prescription drugs. But neither 
Freeland nor other MTA officials said they know what prescription drug 
Thomas was using or for what medical condition it was prescribed.

The safety board would not confirm that the driver had acknowledged using 
prescription drugs.

Results of a Breathalyzer test, which would show whether the operator had 
used alcohol about the time of the accident, were not yet available, said 
Keith Holloway, a safety board spokesman.

Tuesday's accident was almost a playback of an accident in February on an 
adjacent track at the terminal. In that accident, a Light Rail train also 
barreled past the stop, rode over the hydraulic safety post and came to 
rest on it, six feet above the track. Twenty-two people were injured then.

The driver of that train, Sam Epps Jr., told investigators that he had 
taken narcotic painkillers hours before the crash and used cocaine about a 
day earlier to relieve the pain of having several teeth removed in late 
December. The MTA fired Epps for failing to tell the agency about taking 
the prescription drugs, in violation of the policy. He also has been 
charged with reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor.

Under current rules, the MTA can force employees to submit to random and 
incident-based drug tests or to be tested because of a reasonable suspicion 
of drug use.

Violators can face 15-day suspensions and mandatory participation in drug 
rehabilitation programs. Although second offenders can be fired under 
current policy, Freeland said, four of them returned to their jobs after 

Yesterday, Freeland recommended that the MTA create a classification of 
"extreme safety-sensitive" employees who could be fired if found to be 
using illicit drugs. Freeland also urged mandatory drug tests for all 
"safety-sensitive" employees once every two years and a five-year period of 
random drug tests for any employee who has been in drug rehabilitation.

Staff writers Maureen O'Hagan and Don Phillips contributed to this report.
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