The growing use of drugs and alcohol by truck drivers has only exacerbated the current driver...

The growing use of drugs and alcohol by truck drivers has only exacerbated the current driver shortage.

Photo by Michael Fischer from Pexels

More commercial truck drivers are testing positive for drug use for the first time after a decade of declining positive test rates. Mind-altering drugs such as marijuana, alcohol, or opioids affect judgment and reaction time – two of the most important tools for safe driving. In some states, these drugs have been implicated in more accidents than alcohol.

A positive drug test for a commercial truck driver involved in an accident greatly increases the value of a liability claim, regardless of whether the drug use was the cause of the crash. If the driver took the controlled substance two hours – or two days ago – there’s currently no effective test to measure the actual potency within the body and its real-time effect.

Drug tests are discoverable by plaintiff’s attorneys, and are regularly used in commercial crash cases against the vehicle operator.

How Can Fleet Operators Protect Themselves? 

The growing use of drugs and alcohol by truck drivers has only exacerbated the current driver shortage. Hiring managers report that finding an experienced driver with a clean motor vehicle record (MVR), who also consistently passes drug tests is becoming more challenging for organizations recruiting commercial truck drivers.

Unlike the alcohol breathalyzer, there’s no scientific field test for cannabis or any other narcotic. Law enforcement officers use behavioral based judgments and indicators such as eye movements and the smell of cannabis.  This makes enforcement challenging and level of impairment hard to pin down. This also makes it more important than ever for commercial fleet operations to be vigilant, relying on their internal pre-hire, random, and reasonable suspicion testing to avoid unwanted consequences on the road.

Here are three best practices to minimizing the risk of crashes and eradicate truckers driving under the influence:

  1. Thorough background checks are important. Drivers who test positive for drugs/alcohol must go through an employee substance abuse education program and engage in structured testing for at least 12 months, according to the FMCSA. If a driver fails a drug test at a previous carrier and you hire him, the new fleet owns the problem - now the driver’s education program and structured testing is the new owner’s responsibility. By late 2019, the FMCSA will have a substance abuse testing clearinghouse to provide fleet operators with information on a trucker’s previous substance abuse tests. At that time, employers will be required to query the Clearinghouse before new employees get behind the wheel, and annually for all CDL truck drivers.
  2. Have a strong substance abuse policy. Follow Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations for substance abuse testing, including pre-hire, random and reasonable suspicion. Have a strong policy that your company believes in and be consistent in following it. Don’t make exceptions for individual drivers that are either “good guys” or seem impossible to replace, even for a couple of days. If you do, you’re exposing yourself to additional liability exposures that include employment practices and what happens after a crash.  Whether it’s zero tolerance or one strike, if you’re not consistent, you’re hurting your company culture.
  3. Educate drivers and managers. Drivers need to understand they can’t be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at any time while driving, whether it’s medical marijuana, opioids or even anti-histamines. Just because they have a prescription, it is not ok to drive under the influence. Let drivers know that not only is this not true, but they can test positive even when a narcotic seems to be no longer effective in the system. Marijuana, for example, becomes embedded in fatty tissues and will test positive even three weeks post-use. Provide driver supervisors with reasonable suspicion training. Teach them to recognize common symptoms that can include sluggishness, pupil size, certain odors or behaviors, including irritability, mopiness or agitation. Teach drivers that transporting a narcotic in a commercial vehicle is prohibited as well. For example, a truck driver who goes to a dispensary to purchase marijuana – even legally – can and will be arrested for transporting an unopened package in their commercial motor vehicle.

As the opioid crisis continues to infiltrate the workplace, and medical and recreational cannabis use becomes increasingly legal, fleet carriers must be even more vigilant in maintaining a culture of safety across their fleet.

This begins with setting internal policies, thorough background checks and training drivers and managers alike on the risks and realities of driving under the influence. 

About the author: Steve Bojan is Vice President of Fleet Risk Services for Hub International. He has 20 years of operations and risk management experience in the transportation industry and serves as a resource for brokerage operations with transportation related risks, providing risk control, safety, property, environmental, and workers compensation reduction guidance.