School Bus Drivers Parked at 65?

A provincial law put into effect this year says people aged 65 can’t be forced to retire, but some B.C. school boards want that protection removed from school bus drivers.

Those boards want an exemption from the law, arguing safety concerns for students. At least three districts have taken steps to purge their employment rolls of over-age drivers.

Meanwhile, Coast Mountain Bus Company, the Translink subsidiary that provides transit services in the Lower Mainland and employs over 3000 bus drivers, is enthusiastically complying with the new law, and already has a small cohort of over-65 drivers in its fleet, with eight full-sized buses now being driven by the older drivers, and 17 of the company’s van-sized smaller buses.

“There is no real reason for us to discriminate against older drivers,” say Sandra Hentzen, Coast Mountain’s vice president for human resources. “Nothing special happens at age 65 to make you a worse driver. If we forced drivers to resign, we’d be violating the human rights code.”

An Alberta precedent?

But the school boards that have decided to block over-65 drivers from their fleets are relying on a 1999 ruling by an Alberta human rights panel for their precedent in believing that the new anti-discrimination law should not apply to bus drivers.

The panel, relying on research and evidence provided by two expert witnesses, determined that driving ability does diminish with age, that no reliable tests exist that would allow an employer to sort out competent and incompetent older drivers and that, because of these two findings and the importance of protecting student safety, an employer was justified in requiring age-based retirement for school bus drivers despite statutory prohibition of age discrimination.

Dr. Rick Clapton, a traffic safety and driver behavior expert who formerly taught at the University of B.C. Okanagan, told The Tyee that research does support the notion that driving skills deteriorate with age. However, he noted, most older school bus drivers are professionals who have driven and continue to drive extensively. Skills that are practiced regularly, he said, do not deteriorate as rapidly as others.

According to Deborah Stewart, who speaks for the B.C. Public School Employers Association, there are 60 public school districts in B.C. When she spoke to The Tyee on June 10, she was aware of one district, District 23 in Central Okanagan, where the board had decided to insist on retirement at 65 for its directly employed bus drivers.

However, according to Larry Paul, District 23 secretary treasurer, the district plans on offering a transition program to its driver employees as they reach 65 if they want to continue work. Drivers will be taken off the road at 65, he told The Tyee, but will be offered the opportunity for other work within the system.

Reassigned in Coquitlam

The Public School Employers’ Association has circulated to its membership a discussion paper about bus drivers and mandatory retirement that reviews the new law, the Alberta human rights ruling and the several options available to school districts, including imposing mandatory retirement and, alternatively, establishing a testing regime for drivers of all ages to insure driver competence across the fleet.