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Can Truck Driver Drug Abuse Cause Accidents?

Posted on: August 16, 2022

Although recreational marijuana is now legal in several states and is used by people of all professions including truck drivers, the use of various illegal drugs is widespread amongst truckers as well. Recent research shows that cocaine use is now more prevalent than marijuana use for truckers, and both substances present real problems for these drivers, their employers and others who share the roads with them.

How Truck Driver Drug Abuse Causes Accidents?

It makes sense that truckers might use marijuana and cocaine – the former to help them sleep or alleviate boredom on the road, and the latter to keep them awake and energized. They are under constant pressure to pick up, transport, and deliver goods on time, and often work very long hours and face irregular schedules. These drivers are often in poor health when compared to the rest of the working population and rely on self-medicating to make their work seem more bearable. Here are some of the effects of drug abuse on truck driving.

  • Slower reaction times: Depressants like marijuana and opioids slow reactions to external stimuli like flashing red lights, poor weather conditions, and other vehicles.
  • Increased Drowsiness: Depressants also make you sleepy but coming down from a stimulant high also causes fatigue that leads to accidents.
  • More Aggressive Driving: Cocaine, amphetamines and other stimulants cause increased impulsivity that leads to poor judgment and dangerous driving maneuvers. Truck drivers who abuse stimulants may be more prone to speeding, tailgating, unsafe lane changes and worse.
  • Medical Emergencies: Abusing any kind of drug can cause an individual to have a medical emergency when behind the wheel. This could include a heart attack or stroke.

What Drugs Are Truckers Tested For?

A recent study conducted at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) concluded that while urine testing and hair can successfully detect marijuana use, hair drug testing detects higher percentages of harder drugs (cocaine, opioids, heroin).  They also learned that Trucking Alliance drivers were less likely to partake in illegal drugs than the national truck driver population, since they passed urine drug tests 269 percent more often than drivers who were tested by the DAC. For Trucking Alliance drivers that were disqualified for falling hair drug tests, cocaine was found 16.2 percent more often, and opioids were found 143.34 percent more often than in those DAC urine test results.

Are Urine Tests or Hair Tests More Reliable?

The recent UCA study looked at hair testing results instead of traditional ones obtained from urine tests. The final report was created for the Trucking Alliance (Alliance for Driver Safety & Security) in 2021 and was shared by several trucking publications. The test’s data included statistics shared by major freight carriers that belonged to the Alliance, including Dupre, Knight/Swift, U.S. Express, and J.B. Hunt.

One of the main researchers claimed that the group found that the U.S. Department of Transportation has been “seriously under reporting” actual hard drug use by truck drivers, including cocaine, amphetamines, and illegal opioids. He added that hair testing can identify harder drugs at higher percentages when compared to single-urine testing methods used by the federal government.

The Clearinghouse is governed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and only accepts urine test results. The UCA study looked at 1.43 million truck driver urine drug tests (pre-employment) reported by the Clearinghouse and compared them to over 590,000 urine and hair test results provided by carriers in the Trucking Alliance.

The FMCSA disqualified almost 55,000 commercial truck drivers when their urine tests detected illegal drugs use back in 2020 – marijuana was cited as the main drug being used. Trucking Alliance and Clearinghouse data shows that 58,904 truck drivers had tested positive for marijuana, 16,318 were positive for cocaine, and 9,940 showed evidence of methamphetamine in their urine tests. The newer UCA study reported that FMCSA may have disqualified twice as many drivers had they taken hair drug tests, with cocaine showing as the main drug.

Is There Government-Sponsored Drug Testing for Truck Drivers?

Congress directed the Secretary of Transportation to use hair drug testing as an alternative to urine testing for pre-employment screenings and random test for commercial truck drivers back in 2015. Then in 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released their proposed mandatory guidelines for using hair testing for an alternative to urine testing for pre-employment screening and random tests of truck drivers. The agency has been revising the proposal, and until final departmental clearance and a review by the Office of Management and Budget are completed, direct action will probably not be taken.

Since the government has not recognized the hair drug test as an approved method, it might be wise for employers to consider the new report when hiring new drivers and administering drug tests. Much will depend on the size of the carrier and their inherent risk factors. A representative from the Trucking Alliance stated that even though federal laws prohibit truckers from using illegal drugs, thousands escape detection. He added that drug-impaired truck drivers present serious safety issues to the public, but also pose considerable liability risks to their employers.

Is Hair Drug Testing Reliable?

The DOT has not adopted hair drug testing because it is waiting for guidelines from HHS – specifically, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. When the hair-testing rule was introduced, it required urine testing to be used as a backup. Considering that drivers can cheat urine tests or wait until drugs have cleared their system, it seems surprising that hair drug testing is not used more widely. Not only does it reportedly do a better job of snagging “lifestyle” illegal drug users, but it can also detect drug user over longer periods of time and has better detection rates.

Organizations like Road Safe America believe that the back-up urine testing is not even necessary. They feel that doing so undermines the benefits of hair testing under the proposed guidelines. That is because drivers would be allowed to contest positive hair tests with urine tests, and some might be positive on one and negative on the other. Besides that, motor carries would have to spend additional money on secondary tests that seemingly have lower drug detection rates. Truck drivers might also be opposed to having to take two separate drug tests before being hired and on random occasions.

What Happens to Truck Drivers Who Break Drugged Driving Laws?

A truck driver who is tests positive for drugs or is held liable for causing a motor vehicle accident may be disciplined or terminated by their employer. Either way, this all goes on their record, and makes it hard to secure employment going forward. Most states treat drugged driving like drunk driving, holding truckers and drivers to strict standards when they break these laws.

Federal law mandates that trucking companies pull drivers who fail drug tests from their driving responsibilities – if they fail to do so, companies can be exposed to liability lawsuits. The drivers then must complete return-to-duty programs managed by the DOT, otherwise they will not be able to drive again. When a truck driver who is abusing drugs causes an accident, it can cause significant property damage and severe injuries on anyone involved. Drugged driving is against the law, so criminal prosecution is also a distinct possibility in these scenarios.

The Monmouth County Truck Accident Lawyers at Ellis Law Represent Clients Injured in Truck Accidents

Drug abuse is a serious problem among truck drivers, but it is only one potential factor in truck accidents. For a free consultation on any kind of truck accident case, contact our knowledgeable Monmouth County truck accident lawyers at Ellis Law. We are ready to help and will fight to get you the compensation you are entitled to. Complete our online form or call us at 732-308-0200. Our Freehold, New Jersey serves clients in Freehold, East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York, New York.