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Closing drug-test loopholes could hit driver availability

Photo Credit: Computerstech/flickr

Drivers addicted to drugs will likely have a much more difficult time maintaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL) beginning next year – potentially making it more difficult for carriers to seat their trucks, according to a trucking regulation expert.

The government’s Commercial Driver’s License Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse will be open for registration in October, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance. Beginning January 6, 2020, employers will be required to query the clearinghouse on all prospective applicants, so anyone seeking a new job or changing jobs will have to be registered with the clearinghouse – even if they have never tested positive for drugs or alcohol – in order for the employer’s query to be answered.

The database will maintain information on positive tests, including refusals. “However, if a driver does not complete the return-to-duty process, that information will be maintained indefinitely,” according to an FMCSA source. To regain CDL driving privileges following a positive test result, drivers are required to complete a return-to-duty program that involves multiple follow-up tests for controlled substances.

Employers must conduct both electronic queries within the clearinghouse as well as manual inquiries with previous employers to cover the preceding three years, according to FMCSA.

The program is designed to prevent drivers from failing a drug test during employment screening, then a day or two later go to another carrier for a job. It may also catch drivers that slip through the current system and continue to be a road hazard for years.

The FMCSA announced on April 3 it had served a federal order on one such CDL holder, Clayton Hall, who failed a random drug test in January 2017. He was still driving his rig on the interstates as recently as last month despite being issued an out-of-service order. Civil penalties of up to $1,848 may be assessed for each day a commercial motor vehicle is operated in violation of the order.

While there is an obvious safety argument to be made for keeping such drivers off the road – particularly with a rise in the use of opioids in the transportation sector – there are potential economic downsides as well.

“There will be more drivers discovered to have past violations, so in terms of availability, the number of eligible drivers will go down until those drivers with a positive drug test go through that long-established return-to-duty program,” Dave Osiecki, President and CEO of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, told FreightWaves.

“That takes a little bit of time, so there will be a small percentage of drivers who have to go through that process that didn’t before because they were getting through the loophole. But it will have some impact on driver supply, and overall industry capacity.”

Results from the FMCSA’s 2017 drug and alcohol testing survey, released in January, showed an estimated positive usage rate for drugs at 0.8 percent. That compared with 0.8 percent and 0.7 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Osiecki believes the bigger challenge for the industry will come when the drug clearinghouse begins accepting hair follicle specimens as a test for drugs, which “will not be there for the foreseeable future,” he said. “Until then, for all of those positive tests from hair samples – and there are a lot of them – there will be a hair-test loophole. But when it does happen, that’s when driver availability becomes a bigger challenge.”

Hair follicle testing for drugs, while supported by large carriers such as those represented by the American Trucking Associations, has not been proven to be a more effective way than other means to test for driver impairment, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Note: This story was updated on April 15 to clarify technical points.


  1. mousekiller

    Difficult for drivers . it should be. Even harder on the addicts. It should be. it s bad enough we have to put up with ignorant unskilled inattentive drivers that don’t take drugs. Hell if you use drugs you should never be allowed a drivers license let alone a CDL. Refuse to take a drug test that does NOT require blood draw, You should be unemployed then and there. Making it easier to get a job with less drug testing is not the answer. Want safer better drivers? Stop subsidizing the mega carriers that cycle them through their system every 3 to 6 months to get that subsidy money. If that stopped I imagine they would train them better and they would stay there longer. do I think drug testing is a necessity? sure I do. who in the hell would hire an known addict in the first place? idiots will I am sure and we all know they are in nearly every mega carrier. Until they can develop a pill for the new drivers of today to take to give them pride, responsibility and respect nothing is going change especially over night. You cant fix poor parenting .

  2. Michael Blosser

    Actually I think everyone should be subject to the same law as truck drivers. Test positive and license is revoked and a huge fine for each day caught driving.

    1. mousekiller

      Michael, Now that I can agree with . Lot less dumb ass drivers to contend with on the streets and highways. Don’t pass a drug test.? A 6 month waiting period at minimum to be able to test again.

  3. Frank H

    I would rather have a hair test, than urine. However, with many states legalizing marijuana, it’s going to be hard to fill driver seats in those areas. Marijuana should be legalized already on a Federal level.

  4. gary h

    Completely wrong in the 2nd paragraph – "Beginning…so anyone seeking a new job or changing jobs will have to be registered with the clearinghouse…"
    No one has to register with the clearinghouse – if you test positive your information will be put in the clearinghouse. When companies do their pre-employment search they’ll see your positive test and verify that you have completed the return-to-duty and follow-up testing.

  5. Tim Thoelecke

    Of course the Clearinghouse will make it "more difficult for carriers to seat their trucks." It will make it more difficult for carriers to seat their trucks with DANGEROUS DRIVERS. It’s 100% about safety.

    Do you really want your loved ones sharing the highway with huge vehicles operated by cocaine and meth users who do not comply with the Return To Duty and Follow Up process after failing a drug test?

    1. Aaron

      How about all these people that drive around texting, putting makeup on, not using signal lights and so on. What make you think I want to be driving my truck around these people and I’m sure they use drugs as well. It is not about safety. If it were you would be holding the DMV accountable for just issuing out licenses to anyone that has the money. We as truck drivers are sick of big picked on. It is all about money period point blank.

    2. Bob

      What about the good ole Mary Jane I don’t who in there right mind would want to smoke some ganja and than ride out in a tractor trailer the whole point of using it is to relax the mind, and driving an 18 wheeler isn’t my idea of relaxing .

    3. Super Dave

      Well at least we know they will be wide awake vs. the ones nodding out from their govt issued methadone. So yeah I guess so

    4. Suspen_ce

      All I can say is that realistically speaking 85% of all people and I repeat “OF ALL PEOPLE” behind the wheel of a motor vehicle operating on roadways in the lower 48 United States of America is either under the influence or operating a cell phone. And probably 92% of all people operating a vehicle on roadways in the lower 48 United States happen to be under the influence and on their phones.

      All this is leading to is the introduction of A.I. Technology and Equipment to completely replace the drivers. They won’t be replaced in the very beginning, it will gradually happen over time. Then next will be the office level type of employees and departments such as Human Resources, Accounting, Management, Dispatch. Then the CEO/majority stock holder murders all the smaller percentage stockholders until it is just that guy and the robots.

      But when that happens and yes, it WiLL happen. The entire world will be overrun with this A.I.

      Call it farfetched or any “words” to disagree but I recommend looking up the origins and history of the U.S. national holiday known as Labor Day.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.