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Trucking Industry Expands Drug Testing Despite Driver ShortageLock Icon

8 min read
Trucking Industry Expands Drug Testing Amidst Driver Shortage 144508
Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, says her members want all the tools they can get to ensure the safety of drivers and the public. ( Karen E. Segrave)

The trucking industry has a marijuana problem.

Industry leaders, scholars and Arkansas transport companies say more potential and current drivers are testing positive for cannabis use, and fewer are going through a return-to-duty process to get their commercial driver’s licenses back.

With dozens of states allowing legal marijuana consumption either as medicine or for recreation, motor carriers are seeing their hiring pool shrink even as they fight to close a long-term driver shortage.

With drug testing a crucial safety requirement for driving a fully loaded 80,000-pound tractor-trailer down a busy interstate, new methods that sample hair strands and saliva are emerging as alternatives to urinalysis.

Hair follicle analysis gives trucking companies a chance to detect drug use over months rather than hours before the test, but efforts to make it a requirement for all commercial drivers have hit regulatory roadblocks for years.

“My employer members want to do everything in their power to ensure employees are drug-free, particularly when they’re operating large equipment on roads across Arkansas and the country,” said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. “Safety is paramount, and testing is a federal regulation.”

The testing environment includes preemployment testing, after accident testing, and even a requirement that carriers test 50% of their drivers randomly each year, she said.

J.B. Hunt Hair Tests

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell has been a pioneer in hair testing, which major carriers support as a safety enhancement.

“Unfortunately, the legalization of previously prohibited substances is the trend, and that’s creating challenges for our industry,” Newton said.

Of the 3.5 million Americans with commercial driver’s licenses, more than 100,000 have tested positive for marijuana since 2020, including nearly 41,000 in 2022 alone, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Though truckers are also tested for cocaine, PCP, amphetamines and opiates, cannabis positives predominate. And the more sensitive hair tests are almost certain to drive up positive results.

“The total number of positive tests has trended up in the last two years, and it is overwhelmingly marijuana, more than all other drugs combined,” Newton said. “We haven’t seen a dramatic increase in accidents, but pre-hiring everyone has to be tested, and when you’re required to randomly test a percentage of employees every year, that is exacerbating the workforce challenge.”

Newton noted that smaller numbers of suspended drivers are meeting guidelines to get back behind the wheel, even though salaries that were already rising spiked during the pandemic.

As of Feb. 1, 2022, 108,000 CDL drivers had tested positive at least once for drug use, and 83,283 of those remained prohibited to drive, according to the FMCSA’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse. Nearly 63,000 had not even started the return-to-duty process, and only 25,667 had been cleared to return to service.

The clearinghouse reported 69,668 positives and refusals to take drug tests last year, up 18% from 2021. The 2021 numbers were up 9.2% from the previous year. Marijuana positives were up 31.6% last year.

“Today, you have 21 states that allow recreational marijuana and 36 that allow for medical marijuana,” Newton told Arkansas Business. “That shrinks the pool of individuals who would be potentially eligible for hire. It’s a significant headwind for the industry.”

Oral Fluids

Early this month, the U.S. DOT issued a final rule on testing oral fluids in its industry drug-testing program. The rule will allow employers to use oral fluid samples as well as urinalysis as soon as the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services can certify at least two labs to do the saliva tests.

One argument for oral tests is that they take less time, especially when employees have trouble producing urine on demand. In those cases, employers must give employees three hours to produce a sample. Other advocates say urine tests offer more opportunities to cheat.

J.B. Hunt has used hair testing since 2006, and told the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last year that in tests of 191,972 truck driver applicants over 16 years, hair tests yielded positive results on 7,159, about 3.7%. 

The company has urged the FMCSA to make hair testing the industry standard, but trucking owner-operator associations have lobbied against it. J.B. Hunt told the government that if it had relied only on tests now mandated by the government, it could have hired 6,443 drivers who failed the hair tests but passed urine tests. “While J.B. Hunt disqualified those drivers for employment, most of them likely applied for and obtained work at other trucking companies that rely only on the DOT-required pre-employment urine test,” the company told the FMCSA.

“In 2006, J.B. Hunt became one of the first carriers in the industry to implement a hair testing policy for the presence of controlled substances, going beyond the standard urine testing required by the U.S. Department of Transportation,” said a statement by Greer Woodruff, senior vice president of corporate safety, security and driver personnel.

“Supplementing the DOT urine drug test with hair testing has resulted in an 87% decrease in DOT post-accident positive rates for J.B. Hunt.”

 Hair tests could drive up the number of positive results because they detect drug use over 90 days, while urine and saliva tests offer a lookback window of only 24-72 hours.

Trucking Industry Expands Drug Testing Amidst Driver Shortage 144508
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Butch Rice, president and CEO of Stallion Transportation Group of Beebe, told Arkansas Business that hair tests should be mandatory, regardless of predictions that they could worsen the driver shortage. “If that’s true, these people shouldn’t be driving anyway,” he said. “Sure, it’s going to affect the pool if we all go to hair testing. But I’m one of those guys that believes you cannot shortcut drug testing. And I’d rather have a truck sitting on the fence than to have one out there with a driver that we’re unsure about.”

Butch Rice

Both Rice and Newton praised Arkansas voters for rejecting a recreational marijuana legalization amendment in November.

“You know, as a business owner, I think we did the right thing,” Rice said, noting that the Trucking Association was “on the very front end of that with the governor, Asa Hutchinson, at the time.”

It all comes down to liability, Rice said. “You can’t have a driver out there going down the road impaired. We’ve been very fortunate at Stallion. In 30 years we haven’t had a fatality. But all of our drivers are Arkansas drivers, and I don’t think I would recruit drivers from states where recreational marijuana is legal.”

What’s Ahead

FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson told a March gathering of the Truckload Carriers Association in Florida that a proposal for setting guidelines for using hair samples in trucker safety efforts will be available for public comment this summer.

“The results [of hair testing] speak for themselves,”J.B. Hunt’s Woodruff said. “That’s why we continue to advocate for the implementation and large-scale acceptance of hair testing in the industry. This also includes providing extensive guidance on a proposed rule by the Department of Health and Human Services that would establish guidelines for hair testing and allow it to be an alternative to urine and oral fluids testing for certain types of regulated tests. The proposal is currently being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, and we anticipate the approved HHS guidelines to be released this summer, hopefully with our recommendations incorporated.”

Newton said that no matter where individual companies come down on hair and saliva tests, it never hurts to have more tools at hand.

From an industry standpoint,” she said, “it’s nice to have options.”

Who’s Tested and How, Without the Holy Grail

The holy grail of drug testing for truckers, “the absolutely elusive thing,” Shannon Newton says, would be a real-time test for impairment at the wheel.

Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said that without such a test, motor carriers have to insist on a no-tolerance policy.

“I don’t know how we could open the gate [to occasional drug use off the road],” she said in discussing new test methods.

The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration requires testing for all commercial drivers operating vehicles that weigh more than 26,000 pounds or carry 16 or more people. Truck drivers are tested before hiring, at random, after accidents and in cases where there’s a “reasonable suspicion” of impairment. After positive tests, there are tests to return to duty and follow-ups. The FMCSA requires testing for marijuana, cocaine, phencyclidine (PCP), amphetamines and opiates.

“Urinalysis is … the industry standard,” she said. “But there are some in the industry who would like the option to use hair testing. As an employer, you should be able to choose between urinalysis, hair testing or oral fluids testing. It’s commonly accepted that hair testing gives a longer look back, more indicative of a lifestyle than a random test or a one-off.”

Hair testing has been available for years to companies; J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell began using it on truck driver applicants in 2006. But making it a federal requirement has been a bumpy road.

Trucking Industry Expands Drug Testing Amidst Driver Shortage 144508
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“In 2015, Congress gave federal agencies the green light to mandate hair testing, but it remains to be seen if they will ever do so,” according to Ron Gordon, Doug Voss, Andrew Balthrop and Joe Cangelosi of the University of Arkansas and the University of Central Arkansas. The authors produced a white paper last year for the UA’s Sam M. Walton College of Business Supply Chain Research Center.

“Some large carriers argue that mandatory hair testing is a no-brainer” since it offers a longer-term analysis of drug use. “Others — especially labor unions and independent owner-operator associations — see it as government overreach that would invade drivers’ privacy, exacerbate the driver shortage, and unfairly target those with dark hair.” (Some drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine, bind more easily to melanin in dark hair, leading to higher concentrations in testing.)

Ninety percent of American companies that do drug screening use urinalysis, the paper said. “But one problem with urine testing is that it generally only reveals drugs used in the previous 24-72 hours. The short look-back window, combined with the relatively infrequent testing … results in a relatively low probability that any single instance of drug usage will be detected.”

Large carriers have reported that potential drivers sometimes lose interest when they discover the employer uses hair testing. “The link between hair testing and the driver shortage raises a key issue,” the paper says, citing a study that predicted 275,000 drivers nationwide would either fail hair tests or refuse to take them.

When KLLM Transport Services of Mississippi began hair testing its drivers in 2018, its rate of positives was 13.1% opposed to 2.52% with urinalysis, Gordon, Voss, Balthrop and Cangelosi wrote.

“From an employer perspective, there are certain jobs that are sensitive,” said Newton, of the Trucking Association. “You wouldn’t want these people to be impaired while they’re doing their jobs. In our space, the job just doesn’t allow for individuals to be impaired. When your profession is operating heavy trucks and trailers on the highway next to average citizens, you have a duty.”

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