Imagine driving along the highway with your family and knowing that the truck driver alongside you might be a regular cocaine user. New research suggests this scenario is happening every day, as thousands of commercial truck drivers go unchecked for their illegal drug habit.
In a survey of almost one million drug test results, researchers at the University of Central Arkansas found that as many as 9 out of 10 truck drivers who use illegal drugs escape detection with the federally required urinalysis. Only a supplemental hair drug test identified them as drug users.
In fact, previous research indicates that approximately 276,500 commercial truck drivers out of approximately 3.5 million truck drivers would be disqualified if subjected to a more rigorous drug test.
So, how did we get here?
The US Department of Transportation (DOT) requires workers who occupy ‘safety sensitive occupations’ to pass a urinalysis. These occupations include commercial airline pilots, truck drivers, train engineers, and similar jobs where the public could be at risk.
In 2015, Congress passed The FAST Act which was signed into law by former President Obama. Contained within the legislation was a requirement that the Secretary of Transportation recognize hair testing as an alternative to a urinalysis when conducting pre-employment and random drug testing of operators of commercial motor vehicles (CMVs). Congress gave the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) one year to issue scientific and technical guidelines for hair testing, by December 2016.
However, seven years later, HHS hasn’t published the guidelines. Moreover, DOT refuses to accept the names of drivers who test positive with a hair test into the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse. While the carriers disqualify those drivers, other employers have no knowledge of their habitual drug use (and again, about 90% of them pass the DOT urinalysis).
The result is a significant risk to the public of being involved in a large truck crash.
The Trucking Alliance embarked on a multi-year research project, compiling the most comprehensive urine vs. hair test data ever conducted. The results are alarming.
Thousands of CMV operators are using illegal drugs and escaping detection unless they submit to a hair drug test. The researchers concluded that this situation “constitutes a clear and present danger to the traveling public, other truck drivers, supply chain continuity, and potentially threatens the trucking industry given increasingly large legal verdicts resulting from truck crashes.”
What is the difference between urinalysis and hair drug testing?
Urinalysis and hair drug testing are two possible methods by carriers for detecting drug use in truck drivers.
Urinalysis involves analyzing a person’s urine sample to identify the presence of drugs or their metabolites, which refer to the byproducts that are produced when the body breaks down drugs or foreign substances. Detecting specific metabolites in bodily fluids or tissues is often used as evidence of drug use, as they can persist in the body for longer periods compared to the original drug compound itself.
Urinalysis is a widely employed method due to its simplicity, and relatively low cost. However, urinalysis has limitations, particularly in terms of the detection window. It can typically only catch recent drug use within a few hours, depending on the drug.
On the other hand, hair drug testing offers distinct advantages over urinalysis. This method involves clipping a small sample of hair but not the follicle, which is below the scalp. The sample is subjected to laboratory analysis.
One of the key benefits of hair testing is its extended detection window. Hair provides not only evidence of drug use but the frequency with which a person has used the drug, for a much longer period, often up to 90 days. This allows for the detection of long-term drug use patterns and provides a more comprehensive assessment of an individual’s drug history.
Additionally, hair testing is more difficult to manipulate, compared to urine samples. While individuals may try to intentionally tamper with urine test results through various means, such as dilution or using detoxification products, hair testing is more resistant to such attempts.
Hair vs. Urine Testing: What did the Trucking Alliance 2022 report find?
As you can see, both testing methods vary significantly in efficacy – and the research agrees.
Trucking Alliance member carriers US Xpress, Cargo Transporters, JB Hunt Transport, KLLM, Knight/Swift Transportation, Maverick USA, and Schneider National independently provided 173,408 drug test results from 2022, in addition to data from 2017-2021, resulting in a total of 936,872 drug tests (476,304 urine samples; 460,568 hair samples).
Researchers at the University of Central Arkansas analyzed the nearly 1 million tests to compare urine and hair drug testing for truck drivers by examining:
- Hair vs. urine positivity rate differences for drugs tested in a 5-panel drug screen
- Hair vs. urine positivity rate differences by age group
- Hair vs. urine positivity rate differences by state
The results of the 2017-2021 data analysis showed that hair testing reveals:
- 25x more opioid users,
- 23x more cocaine users, and
- 13x more amphetamine/methamphetamine users
In 2022, hair testing uncovered 10x more drug positives. Crosstab statistical analysis indicates:
- Hair has a significantly higher positivity rate compared to urine.
- Hair detects significantly more cocaine, opioids, amphetamines/methamphetamines, marijuana, ecstasy, and PCP.
Further, hair testing uncovered more positive drug tests across every drug, for every examined age group, and in every U.S. state.
What does this mean for the trucking industry?
If the Department of Transportation wants to improve roadway safety, the agency must allow more effective testing methods, like hair testing, to disqualify drivers who use drugs. HHS has not yet issued guidelines, but the guidelines will likely not be dissimilar to other currently recognized lab accreditations, such as by the College of American Pathology.
As long as hair test results were conducted by a nationally accredited lab, DOT should allow hair test results to be submitted to the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse.
The Trucking Alliance petitioned DOT to recognize such hair test results, but DOT denied the petition in December 2022, stating that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration had no such authority. Citing a bureaucratic reason for denying the petition has enabled thousands of drug abusers to continue escaping detection, creating a national safety risk of more large truck crashes.