As fight over hair testing for drugs go on, HHS is up next as the key government player

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The push to have hair testing alongside urine testing to determine evidence drug use for driver applicants is not being put aside, with a coalition of big companies still continuing to seek permission to use a hair sample alongside--or instead of--a cup of urine.  

There are two large company groupings pushing hair testing as a preferred method over urine. The Trucking Alliance, which generally has had a pro-ELD message as its primary focus, recently called for unspecified Congressional action on the issue, as opposed to a regulatory approach, with opioids at the heart of its argument. The Trucking Alliance consists of seven companies: J.B. Hunt, KLLM Transport, Knight-Swift, Maverick USA, U.S. Xpress, Cargo Transporters and Dupre Logistics. 

Earlier this year, in another push for hair testing, Hunt, Maverick, Knight-Swift and Dupre joined with Schneider Transportation and Werner Enterprises in a request to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to have that agency allow the use of hair testing.

The Trucking Alliance's latest step in the ongoing debate was an announcement of the Congressional push, soon after it presented to a United Nations event on the relationship between technology and road safety in Brazil.

In its statement about the initiative,  Alliance director Lane Kidd said his group "hope(s) Congress will follow Brazil's leadership and require a drug test that proves without a doubt that a truck driver job appliance hasn't taken illegal drugs or abused opioids for at least 30 days." In a telephone interview with FreightWaves, Ladd said the request to FMCSA and the recent push for Congressional action have largely been merged, given the overlap between the two groups.

Back in February, John Paul Hampstead reported on how Brazilian tests have had a profound impact on death and disabilities resulting from implementation of tighter screening methods. In his article he stated:

Because hair tests have a much longer detection period than urinalysis and have a correspondingly higher detection rate, switching to hair testing should bring significant safety improvements and lower insurance costs to carriers. In March 2016, Brazil began requiring all professional drivers in categories C, D, and E, to submit to hair testing in order to add these categories to their licenses or get their licenses renewed. Category C essentially corresponds to straight trucks, D covers drivers of rigid passenger buses, and E refers to semi-trucks and articulated buses. 

According to Brazil’s Federal Highway Police, 25,000 accidents were prevented that year, a drop of 21%, and deaths and disabilities from highway accidents dropped 39%. The new law also requires pre-employment hair screening for professional drivers, but that has yet to be completed rolled out. When the carriers, as well as state authorities, begin widespread hair testing, it will have an even more profound effect on the driver workforce than the first stage of testing. In 2016, 31% of drivers due for a license renewal simply opted to not renew it at all, and it isn’t clear whether capacity left the trucking market altogether or migrated into a more illicit space.

The efforts in 2018 come after the Department of Transportation late last year published a rule that allowed for urine-based testing for an expanded list of several opioids.

"Drug tests other than on urine specimens are not authorized for testing under this part," the DOT said in the supporting document to the rule. "Only urine specimens screened and confirmed at HHS certified laboratories are allowed for drug testing under this part."

The reference to HHS is key. Kidd said the HHS--the Department of Health and Human Services--is currently working on protocols for the use of hair testing. Without those rules in place, Kidd said it was all but impossible for the DOT to include hair testing in the November 2017 rule.

"Our hope is that HHS should publicize the guidelines sometime this year, when it forwards them over to the Office of Management and Budget for approval," Kidd said. The companies that are pushing for the hair testing will review those guidelines when they come out to determine what sort of changes they would need to make in their own operations.

Dean Newell is the vice president of safety and driver training at Maverick. He made the presentation before the UN/Brazil meeting. He echoed a statement in the Alliance's release on their Congressional push that quoted Kidd as saying: "The (DOT's) pre-employment drug test protocols are missing most lifestyle drug users and opioid addicts, and that's a national problem for our industry."

The argument in favor of hair testing from Kidd and Newell is that traces of opioids stay in hair samples for weeks but disappear from urine in a matter of days. "Hair testing is more expensive, but we shouldn't have to do a less efficient urine test," Newell told FreightWaves. Still, Maverick is conducting hair testing; it is perfectly legal to do so and deny an applicant employment based on the results.

In his presentation to the UN/Brazil meeting, Newell said Maverick began hair testing in August 2012. At the time of the presentation earlier this year, the company had given about 6,940 hair tests for job applicants. Those tests showed drugs in about 2.33% of them. But the urine tests only turned up eight failures.

As Newell said in his Power Point presentation to the meeting: "154 (are) driving for other companies because we can not report the results of the hair tests." In the release regarding the UN presentation, Kidd cited J.B. Hunt data, which showed positive testing of about 4.5% for those taking the hair test, 0.58% on both tests, and 0.14% on urine only. 

While the pro-hair test forces await the results of the HHS study, Kidd said they would continue to undertake educational efforts. Specifically, they will try to meet with members of the House and Senate to share with them their data. "People I talk to have no idea that the urine exam is not identifying the true opioid users," Kidd said. "When I show them the data, they are blown away."

Opposition to allowing hair testing comes from OOIDA, the trade group of independent owner/operators. In a white paper released on the subject, according to OOIDA-owned LandLine magazine, the group said that the members of the Trucking Alliance have “yet to demonstrate that they have experienced a reduction in crash rate since their voluntary adoption of hair testing. Neither have they presented evidence showing that their hair testing labs meet the rigorous standards of scientific methodology for testing or that their hair testing equipment and protocol has been consistent and unbiased.” The story came out soon after the Trucking Alliance made a public statement about its Brazil/UN presentation.