Trucking Under the Influence: Is a National Clearinghouse Needed?

By | May 23, 2008

It is estimated that somewhere between 1 percent and 10 percent of drivers of commercial or “big rig” trucks are operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol on any given day.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) believes the “positive” rate among truck drivers tested for drugs is about 2 percent to 2.5 percent. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis says the number is a little more than 1 percent. The state of Oregon, however, which has been conducting random tests of drivers on that state’s road since 1998, puts the figure at nearly 10 percent.

The problem is no one really knows how big the problem really is.

As Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit puts it, “Here in the United States of America, we have no meaningful program of drug testing for commercial truck drivers, none.”

Around 711,000 commercial motor carriers are registered in the U.S., according to DeFazio. “This translates to more than four million individuals who have been issued a commercial driver’s license,” DeFazio said upon convening a Nov. 1, 2007, hearing on drug and alcohol testing of commercial truck drivers.

He noted there is general agreement that the most conservative estimate is that “at least 1.7 percent” of truckers have problems with substance abuse. “That is 170,000 truck drivers driving 80,000 pound trucks, abusing drugs,” DeFazio said.

Current system easily manipulated

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rules mandate drug and alcohol testing of operators of commercial vehicles under several conditions: pre-employment, reasonable suspicion, post accident, random, return-to-duty and follow-up. The federally required urine tests screen for marijuana, opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and PCP. Companies that employ commercial drivers are supposed to randomly test 50 percent of their drivers each year.

However, in a study commissioned by the highways and transit subcommittee, the General Accountability Office (GAO) found that the drug testing procedures, performed by privately owned and operated facilities, are vulnerable to manipulation. There are some 8,500 to 10,000 such facilities in the U.S., according to information provided by the subcommittee. GAO investigators, operating undercover, found that 75 percent of the facilities tested “failed to secure the facility from substances that could be used to adulterate or dilute the specimen.” The GAO said a study it conducted in 2005 found some 400 products being marketed that are designed to thwart the tests by changing the nature of the urine samples.

Another weak link in the FMCSA’s drug testing program is the ability of truckers to change jobs without their drug history following them.

Concerned about the ability of the trucking industry to keep drug and alcohol abusers off the road, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) in August 2007 called upon Congress to create a national clearinghouse for positive drug and alcohol test results of commercial motor vehicle drivers to help ensure that motor carrier employers are aware of previous positive test results during the hiring process.

While five states have established their own state-based clearinghouses for such information, the ATA believes the problem should be addressed on a national basis.

“The trucking industry is a national industry,” ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “State by state action will result in a patchwork quilt of differing reporting requirements by different people, with different commercial driver licensing actions or outcomes for truck drivers depending upon which state issued their license. A national solution is the optimal approach to addressing this issue.”

Testifying before the subcommittee on behalf of the ATA, Greer Woodruff, senior vice president of Corporate Safety and Security for J.B. Hunt Transport, described the loophole: “A driver applies for a job at a trucking company and tests positive for drugs on the DOT-required pre-employment drug test. As a result of testing positive, the driver is not hired. In many cases, the driver simply waits a short amount of time to cleanse his system, a few days or perhaps a few weeks, and applies for a job at a different trucking company and passes the DOT required pre-employment test.

“The driver does not self-report the previous positive test result on the employment application, and therefore the second trucking company is not aware of the driver’s previous positive test result.

“This loophole exists because a driver is supposed to self-report since there is no current method of centrally capturing positive test results.”

Under the ATA’s model, the clearinghouse would not only collect reports on positive test results, it would also maintain information regarding commercial drivers’ refusal to be tested.

Groups representing truck drivers, however, expressed concern that a central clearinghouse as proposed by the ATA has the potential to violate a truck driver’s right to privacy.

Rick Craig, director of Regulatory Affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told lawmakers that while the group supports the goal of eliminating drug and alcohol abuse in the trucking industry, “we remain unconvinced of the need for a national clearinghouse for positive drug and alcohol testing results. The national database, as described in ATA’s proposal, does not ensure that a carrier removes a violating driver from performing safety-sensitive functions nor does it otherwise enhance the existing drug testing requirements.”

In written testimony, Craig said if such a clearinghouse were to be established, “the regulations must be amended to provide effective due process protections for drivers to contest false positives, and collection side, laboratory and Medical Review Officer errors.”

Editor’s note: The above is an edited version of a story that appeared in the May 19, 2008, edition of Insurance Journal – South Central.

Topics Legislation Auto Drugs Trucking

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