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.