Urine or You're Out

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Advocates of workplace drug testing make their strongest arguments where safety is involved. Nobody, they say, would want pilots, bus drivers, or air-traffic controllers operating under the influence.

A new alternative to urinalysis better addresses public-safety concerns without invading employees' privacy. It directly measures impairment—regardless of its cause—rather than simply picking up traces of illegal drugs.

The system, which resembles a video game, measures hand-eye coordination and reaction time, comparing them to the subject's performance on an earlier, baseline test. It takes only a few minutes to run, and it detects impairment due to alcohol, prescription drugs, fatigue, and other factors that do not turn up on conventional drug tests.

Urinalysis, by contrast, does not show impairment; it only indicates whether the subject has ingested certain illegal drugs. Traces of such substances linger in the urine long after the effects have worn off—in the case of marijuana, for weeks or months.

The new test, called Factor One, was developed by Systems Technology Inc. of Hawthorne, California, and is marketed by Performance Factors Inc. of Emeryville, California. Three California transportation companies have begun to use Factor One to test drivers and ship-crew members.

Don Harrison, general manager of Old Town Trolley Tours in San Diego, told the New York Times that the test has been well received by the company's employees. "I think most of them like the idea that we're judging them on their performance rather than on what they might have been doing a couple of nights ago," he said. "I like it because it's practical."

Factor One is based on a system developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s during research for the Skylab program. The Air Force has used the system, known as the critical tracking test, to investigate the ability of pilots to control damaged aircraft. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has successfully used CTT to detect drunk drivers.

So why has the federal government been pushing imprecise and needlessly intrusive drug tests instead? Ask Bill Bennett.

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