DOT contemplates hair testing

For three years now, the US federal government has been developing new guidelines for drug testing truck drivers to control drug use on the job. According to experts, it will take another three years before the new guidelines become fully established. As more states legalize recreational cannabis use, the government aims to implement federal standards as safety measures for the trucking industry.

According to the rules established in 2016 by Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, all trucking employers are legally mandated to test all drivers before allowing them to operate a commercial vehicle. Moreover, random drug tests are also included in this requirement. Trucking employers must administer a specific number of random drug tests each year, totalling 10% or more of the average number of driver positions in the company.

The trucking industry has called for a more accurate testing procedure, with large trucking companies reporting that the DOT’s urine tests are ineffective; they are instead looking to test employees’ hair strand samples for traces of illegal drugs.

According to Lane Kidd, the managing director of the Trucking Alliance, the proposed federal guidelines will not implement mandatory hair strand testing, but will allow for failed hair test results to be entered into the national Clearinghouse database to be accessed by trucking companies. This way trucking companies would be able to examine potential applicants for previously failed drug tests. 

It is possible for a driver to fail a hair test at one company, and then pass a urine test at another company that does not require hair testing, with about only 5% of trucking companies using hair testing along with the required urine test, said Kidd.

In June, the US Trucking Alliance carried out a survey measuring the effectiveness of different drug testing methods. As part of the survey, several large trucking companies that use both hair and urine testing methods had shared their results with Trucking Alliance.

The survey examined the urine and hair test results of over 150,000 applicants for truck driving positions. According to the results of the survey, less than 1% of all trucking applicants failed the federal urine test, while almost 9% of all applicants failed or refused to take a hair test, indicating that the federal urine test failed to detect over 10,000 drug users.

However, members of smaller trucking companies have expressed concerns over false positives yielded by hair testing, as well as potential racial discrimination. A research analyst of the association, Andrew King, said that traces of an illegal substance could be more easily detected in individuals with darker hair.

According to King, it can take several days for traces of an illegal substance to become detectable in someone’s hair, making it possible for a hair test to detect drugs used months ago, but not necessarily those taken in just days before the test.

Some members of Congress have expressed concerns that with increasing legalization of recreational cannabis in many states, truck drivers who live in or pass through those states could become more susceptible to failing a hair test.

Representative Peter DeFazio who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said: “In states where marijuana is legal, it’s going to show up in their next hair test, even though they’ve never abused their privilege of driving or imbibed while driving.”

In 2015, President Obama had signed a law calling for implementation of comprehensive hair testing guidelines by December 2016. However, the guidelines still await federal approval. In June 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services had forwarded a version of the guidelines to the Office of Management and Budget.

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