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Drug Testing

Study renews debate over trucker drug-testing methods

Feb. 28, 2022
The long tussle over urinalysis vs. hair testing is revisited with dueling research sponsored by opposing trucking stakeholders.

Controversy has returned over the question of which drug-testing method the government should require for federal Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse compliance. Two prominent trucking stakeholders are opposing each other in the debate over urinalysis vs. hair screening and the prevalence of marijuana use among truck drivers over more illicit substances.

In the past few years, the testing question largely has been settled in favor of cheaper and more widely available urinalysis to satisfy the clearinghouse requirement—though proponents such as the Alliance for Driver Safety & Security, known as the Trucking Alliance, continue to make their case for hair testing.

It was the Trucking Alliance that stirred the debate about a month ago with the Jan. 12  release of a study that claimed to show driver use of cocaine was seriously underreported by the clearinghouse and that truckers use cocaine more than they do marijuana, which is legal for recreational use in limited quantities in 18 states and the District of Columbia. In 37 states, medical use also is legal.

See also: Drug and alcohol testing and the driver shortage

The federal clearinghouse statistics, which are based only on urinalysis, show exactly the opposite of what the alliance contends: The January clearinghouse report—the latest data available—shows  more than three times as many positive marijuana tests as cocaine, though cocaine is the second-ranking substance.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) does not recognize hair testing as a valid screening method, though the FAST Act of 2015 passed by Congress instructed the government to do so. The Trucking Alliance pushed for this to happen. The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), six years after the law passed, hasn’t satisfied Congress’ demand—though HHS did issue a proposed rulemaking (in 2020) for inclusion of hair testing in regulated drug-testing programs.

But no final rulemaking has been issued as of this writing.

The Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) came out against the Trucking Alliance study, with OOIDA spokesperson Norita Taylor calling it “irresponsible” and with OOIDA overall, in a Jan. 18  white paper of its own, criticizing the Trucking Alliance’s findings as “marketing material” that casts truck drivers in an unfavorable light.

The Trucking Alliance study “makes truckers look terrible, that everybody is out there doing drugs,” added Andrew King, an OOIDA Foundation research analyst who spoke with FleetOwner. The Trucking Alliance, King asserted, “has been pushing for hair testing for a long time. They paid for the study, and they’ve hand-picked their results.”

When King was asked how marijuana could so outpace cocaine in federal clearinghouse results but, as the Trucking Alliance contends, cocaine and other opioids could be used more by truck drivers, King said: “I don’t see that as possible.”

In his own interview with FleetOwner, Lane Kidd, the Trucking Alliance’s managing director and also a target of OOIDA’s criticism, said it’s not the Trucking Alliance’s intention to disparage drivers but instead to ensure that the most accurate testing method is used—all in the name of reducing the safety risk to the motoring public. “We as an industry have an obligation to make sure our drivers are well-trained, well-rested, and drug-free. Wouldn’t we want to have the most effective drug-testing method used?”

The group’s report examines 1.42 million truck driver pre-employment urine drug test results reported by the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse with independent 593,832 urine and hair test results submitted by carriers that belong to the Trucking Alliance.

“Our research found that [USDOT] is seriously underreporting the actual use of harder drugs by truck drivers, such as cocaine and illegal opioids,” said Doug Voss, professor of logistics and supply chain management at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), in the January release from the Trucking Alliance. “Our analysis clearly concludes that hair testing identifies these harder drugs at higher percentages than the single urine testing method relied on by the federal government.”

See also: Trucking wants to take marijuana head-on

According to the Trucking Alliance, the UCA research concluded:

  • Alliance-affiliated drivers are less likely to use illegal drugs than the national truck driver population, passing their urine drug tests 269% more frequently than the drivers represented in the clearinghouse.
  • However, among alliance drivers who were disqualified for failing their hair tests, cocaine was identified 16.2% more frequently and opioids were identified 14.34% more frequently than in the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse urine tests.
  • Researchers found statistical evidence that urinalysis is effective at detecting marijuana, while hair testing detects marijuana but also a higher percentage of harder drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and opioids.
  • The severity of this issue is compounded by the finding that an additional 58,910 clearinghouse drivers would likely have been disqualified in 2020 if the drivers had submitted to hair testing.

“Until hair is recognized as a single test method, employers should consider what Trucking Alliance carriers are doing and require driver applicants to pass the required urine test and also a hair test,” Kidd explained.

“Driving a tractor-trailer while under the influence is a lethal combination and we must keep these drivers out of trucks until they complete rehabilitation and return to duty,” he added.

But in its white paper, OOIDA argues that the University of Central Arkansas comparison of the two data sets in TA’s study yielded flawed results.

“Due to several unreported confounding factors, such as state regulations legalizing marijuana, scope, and type of operations, age, experience, etc., these test results cannot and should not be compared with one another for multiple reasons. For example, hair tests measure for exposure. They do not detect current use, nor do they detect if a trucker is under the influence of an illicit drug while driving or in a safety-sensitive function,” according to the OOIDA paper.

Hair analysis vs. urinalysis—a long debate

Both hair analysis and urinalysis are dependable at establishing a history of drug use, but the differences can lie in detecting recreational use of all kinds of drugs vs. a pattern of longer use or abuse, according to an older article published in 1995 by two researchers, Robert DuPont and Werner Baumgartner.

In their abstract from Forensic Science International available online at ScienceDirect, “hair analysis provides long-term information, from months to years, concerning both the severity and pattern of drug use. In contrast to this, urinalysis can indicate only drug use, and then generally only that which has occurred within the last two to three days.” Other experts say hair testing can detect drug use as far back as 90 days and that urine and oral fluid tests have a much shorter detection window.

The difference, the researchers also reported, is the wider surveillance window of hair analysis and the susceptibility of urinalysis to a drug user evading a positive test. Some advocates, including the Trucking Alliance, argue that hair analysis more easily finds the presence of harder drugs as opposed to marijuana and is much harder to evade.

Then why, if urinalysis is seemingly flawed, did the federal government choose it as the method of choice for screening drivers for Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse compliance, even when larger fleets can do hair testing to screen their own drivers, independent of the clearinghouse if allowed by their states?

Some stakeholders argue that urine testing is inexpensive, too widespread of a method, and delivers acceptable enough results for the government to demand hair screening—which generally is more expensive and depends on work in labs that have been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the HHS rule proposed in 2020 would apply only to federal employees and contractors, industries regulated by USDOT—trucking included—would have to follow the guidelines later when developing their own drug-testing programs.

Employers can use hair testing if their state laws allow it (at last count nine states do)—and many in the trucking industry avail themselves of the opportunity, but generally for pre-employment screening—but the procedure may not be used to satisfy federal drug-testing requirements such as those of the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, and it might never be.

About the Author

Scott Achelpohl | Managing Editor

I'm back to the trucking and transportation track of my career after some time away freelancing and working to cover the branches of the U.S. military, specifically the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and the U.S. Coast Guard. I'm a graduate of the University of Kansas and the William Allen White School of Journalism there with several years of experience inside and outside business-to-business journalism. I'm a wordsmith by nature, and I edit FleetOwner magazine and our website as well as report and write all kinds of news that affects trucking and transportation.

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