There’s little doubt that the introduction of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse has had an impact on the efficiency of testing and reporting. Because of the improved sharing of information, drivers who test positive or refuse to test are finding it much more difficult to simply change carriers.
As of December 31, 2020, the Clearinghouse has reported 104,840 drivers with disqualifying violations. By far, marijuana metabolite was the most common substance identified, with 55.7% of positives showing the drug. Cocaine came in a distant second, responsible for 15.4% of identified substances.
However, a recent study conducted at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) claims the number of positive results for cocaine and other drugs would have been much higher if an improved testing method — namely hair testing — was used.
Hair testing is in use by employers and court systems across the continent, but it hasn’t yet been approved for controlled substance testing by the FMCSA.
The UCA study, commissioned by members of The Alliance for Driver Safety and Security (also known as The Trucking Alliance, or TA), used data collected from TA member carrier hair testing programs and reports from the FMCSA Clearinghouse. The carrier members include US Xpress, Cargo Transporters, Dupre, JB Hunt, KLLM, Knight/Swift, Maverick Transportation, May Trucking, and Schneider.
Prepared by Joe Cangelosi, Ph.D., and Doug Voss, Ph.D., the study found that an additional 58,910 drivers would have failed pre-employment drug tests in 2020 if hair testing had been used instead of or in addition to urine testing. The study found the use of so-called “harder” drugs, such as cocaine and opioids, is seriously underreported by FMCSA’s current urine testing policy.
UCA researchers compared 1,429,842 truck driver pre-employment urine drug test results reported by the Clearinghouse with 593,832 urine and hair test results submitted by TA member carriers.
“Federal law prohibits truck drivers from using illegal drugs, yet thousands are escaping detection,” said Lane Kidd, managing director of TA in a January 11 press release. “Drug-impaired truck drivers are a critical public safety issue, but employing these drivers can be a considerable liability risk.”
TA members currently utilize hair testing in addition to urine testing. However, regulations don’t recognize hair testing for FMCSA purposes, including compliance with testing, reporting, and record keeping policies. Because of this, carriers that test hair samples must also test urine samples, adding considerable cost to the testing process.
Many trucking groups, including the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA), also support hair testing.
“We support the efforts of hair testing and recognize that it certainly plays a major role in discovering drug use among potential drivers or drivers that may be operating within our industry,” remarked TCA Vice President of Government Affairs David Heller.
Advocates for hair testing say the method has advantages over urine testing: Perhaps most importantly, drug residues are stored much longer in the hair than in the urine. Cocaine, for example, can be out of the user’s system in as little as 48 hours, depending on the amount used. Drivers who use cocaine can simply stop using before reporting for a new job, or even before returning to a company terminal where a random drug screen is a possibility.
Hair testing can detect the use of cocaine within the past 90 days, and even longer in some cases. The same goes for amphetamines and other controlled substances.
Marijuana metabolites tend to remain in the body longer, and can show up in a urine test a month or more after use. The large percentage of positive results for marijuana reported by the Clearinghouse could be more an indication of how long the drug is detectable in urine samples than of the prevalence of use by drivers.
Additionally, hair testing proponents argue, there are methods drivers can use to try to defeat urine testing, including substituting urine from another person or using synthetic urine, which is easily available online. There are even “delivery” products that provide an assist in passing an observed test. Diluting specimens with water is often attempted as well.
With hair testing, specimens are collected by approved personnel with a pair of scissors. Cheating the test is much more difficult.
The hair testing issue isn’t new. It was addressed in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act which authorized government agencies to recognize hair testing and gave the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) a year to deliver testing guidelines. The year passed, and then another, and….
TA members petitioned the FMCSA in January 2017 to allow hair testing to be used in lieu of urine testing for pre-employment purposes. While the petition did not end with a favorable result, the issue continued to simmer.
The HHS finally proposed the long awaited guidelines in September 2020, and the agency’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published them in the Federal Register. The comment period has passed, but no final rule has been issued.
The proposed guidelines were widely criticized as overly burdensome and ineffective. Under the proposal, federal agencies would be authorized — but not required — to add hair testing.
One major provision calls for collecting and testing at least one other specimen, such as urine, if hair testing is used, ensuring that carriers who use hair testing will continue to fund dual testing processes. Another specifies that only head hair can be used for testing, making it difficult to obtain a specimen from a driver with a close-cropped or shaved head.
Perhaps the most perplexing provision is that the specimen donor must admit drug use to the medical review officer; if not, the specimen can’t be reported as positive. Test results of another specimen, such as urine, could be used to confirm the positive result, but the hair test result can’t be used without driver admission.
While the industry complies with current guidelines, questions remain about why urine testing is the regulatory standard when the evidence points to better identification of drug users with hair testing.
“Safety is paramount to TCA members and there’s no place in our industry for illegal substances while behind the wheel,” Heller noted. “There’s no way around it.”
UCA’s study met with criticism from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). OOIDA’s research and education foundation, wrote a scathing response, stating that the study “includes no analysis, demographic information, literature review, hypothesis or even methodology” and that the researchers provided limited information “yet expects the reader to accept their conclusions on blind faith.”
In addition, the foundation said, the cross-section of drivers used in the study included only a small subset of carriers who are located in distinct regions of the U.S., therefore the sample was not “generalizable” to the nation’s driver population.
UCA’s Voss fired back, noting, “Our peer-reviewed research (Voss and Cangelosi, 2020) established that TA drivers are hired from a nationwide pool with a statistically significant geographic correlation to the U.S. truck driver population as provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
In addition, Voss noted that the study utilized hair tests from 288,495 drivers and urine tests from 305,337 drivers, more than 17 times the required sample size.
“A sample size of 16,641 is required to make inferences to the U.S. truck driver population given a 1% margin of error and 99% confidence interval,” he stated.
OOIDA also contended that hair and urine tests are not comparable because of the differences in detection windows.
“(OOIDA) seems to believe that urine is superior because it can be used to detect current drug use. We agree that urine is better suited for post-accident drug screens,” Voss remarked. “However, our report examines pre-employment drug screens, the purpose of which is to determine whether a driver has used drugs.”
Voss said that OOIDA’s criticism that the report doesn’t compare safety outcomes between firms that only employ urine testing and those who also employ hair testing, was irrelevant because of the stated purpose of the study.
“This was never the purpose of our work, which is clearly defined in its very first sentence (of the report),” he stated. “We do believe examining hair testing’s safety outcomes would be interesting, however, the safety benefits of removing drug users from the road appear obvious.”
Truckload Authority staff writer John Worthen contributed to this report.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.