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Viewpoint: DOT ignoring key test to stop drug-impaired truckers

Despite congressional authorization, hair-testing results are still not recognized

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Lane Kidd is managing director of The Trucking Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of freight and logistics companies dedicated to improving the safety and security of their commercial truck drivers and motorists. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates. 

By Lane Kidd

On June 25, 2015, a truck driver with methamphetamines in his system was traveling north on Interstate 75, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Traffic had slowed because of road construction. 

But this truck driver never slowed down. 

He collided with the rear of a Toyota Prius. The tractor-trailer continued forward and collided with seven additional vehicles, forcing them into subsequent collisions. Of the 18 vehicle occupants, six people died. Four people were injured. A postcrash fire consumed one vehicle. 

RELATED: Carriers pressure FMCSA to act on drug hair-test exemption request

This tragedy didn’t need to happen. The National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident and reviewed the truck driver’s toxicology results from drug tests taken after the crash. The driver had a history of drug abuse. 

The NTSB found “the [hair] test results indicated a pattern of drug use not identified by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) drug testing program.” 

The truck driver previously passed a preemployment urine test, the only method DOT requires. But studies have found a urine test can miss nine out of 10 actual drug users. 

Had the truck driver’s employer required a hair test, it’s likely the driver would have tested positive for drugs and been disqualified from operating a truck. 

In its findings, the NTSB suggested that the DOT implement more stringent drug test protocols for truck drivers, such as hair testing. The agency requested that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) “gather data on the prevalence of commercial motor vehicle driver use of impairing substances and to consider alternative drug testing methods.” 

6 years and no action

Congress went further. As part of the FAST Act of 2015, Congress authorized the DOT to recognize hair testing — in lieu of a urine test — for preemployment and random testing of commercial truck drivers. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was given one year to deliver testing guidelines to the DOT. That way, motor carriers could quickly utilize hair testing rather than the less-effective urine test in their truck driver hiring protocols. 

HHS had an easy task. ISO/IEC 17025 certification for drug testing laboratories is internationally recognized and available. Additionally, drug testing labs can earn accreditation, specifically for hair testing, from the College of American Pathologists. The HHS could have completed a few “cut-and-paste” exercises and delivered the guidelines to the DOT by the one-year deadline. 

It’s now six years later — and nothing has happened. The HHS has yet to complete the guidelines. Further, neither the DOT nor the FMCSA have acted. Despite congressional authority given to DOT, the FMCSA will not today disqualify a truck driver for failing a hair test for drug use. 

Should DOT recognize hair testing now? 

According to peer-reviewed research in the current issue of the Journal of Transportation Management, about 275,000 U.S. truck drivers working today would fail a hair test for illegal drugs. That’s the equivalent of 21,000 commercial airline pilots. 

How many passengers would board a flight knowing the pilot could very well have an undetected drug abuse problem? Yet millions of motorists drive alongside truck drivers operating 80,000-pound tractor-trailers each day. 

Drug-impaired truck drivers are a public safety risk. The DOT can act on its safety mission and utilize the authority Congress has given the agency. The DOT should recognize hair testing now, in lieu of a urine test, as Congress authorized in 2015. 

Employers could submit hair test failures to the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, allowing other prospective employers to know if a truck driver applicant has previously failed a drug test. Drug abusers cannot be allowed to operate commercial trucks on U.S. highways. 

Looking the other way, as the DOT has done for six years, should no longer be an option. 

One Comment

  1. Thagearjammer25/8

    It’s just like any other regulation someone is going to find a work around. A wig? It comes down to personal responsibility. The unintended consequences of living in a “free” country. Drug abusers can’t operate commercial but personal vehicles we look the other way. DUI alcohol still a leading cause and it’s a legal substance! Not detected by hair!! We got problems but this isn’t a solution.

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Note: FreightWaves occasionally publishes commentary from industry sources with expertise, information and opinion on current transportation topics. The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of FreightWaves. Submissions to FreightWaves are subject to editing.