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The wait's just begun for oral fluid drug testing

April 7, 2022
All fleets should have every drug-screening method—urine, oral, and hair—at their disposal as soon as possible.

One rite of passage for me every year is the inevitable coming and going of Opening Day, the ceremonial start of the baseball season, which kicks off today and continues throughout the dog days of summer. We waited this year through a lot of labor strife for the games to begin—but the delay promises to be a lot longer for oral fluid testing in the trucking industry.

The recent news of a proposal to allow the drug-testing method to be among those approved by U.S. Department of Transportation was encouraging, but we waited nearly two and a half years for this proposed rulemaking and the delay might be much longer for the testing method to receive DOT's final stamp of approval. It must make its way through another laborious regulatory process.

See also: DOT sanctions oral fluid testing as a drug-screening method

On Oct. 25, 2019, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced its guidance for incorporating oral fluid testing into the federal drug-testing protocols for federal workers, a precursor to what would be incorporated into the DOT regimen for professional truck drivers. Well, the start of that process finally arrived on Feb. 28, when DOT announced its proposal to use this form of testing for the trucking community.

The proposal itself would provide motor carriers the opportunity to choose between urine testing and oral fluid testing as part of their drug-testing protocols. Flexibility is the root cause of this notion, allowing carriers to opt for a test that best suits their needs and operation.

One advantage of oral fluid testing is the issue of direct observation. Obviously less intrusive than urine testing, this would eliminate the “shy bladder” syndrome or the presence of any possible fraudulent devices that could present themselves with urinalysis. I can remember a time when the “Urinator” was a device used to circumvent the system, and an oral fluid test could rectify that problem.

See also: Drug and alcohol testing and the driver shortage

Economic advantages and the ability to test at the scene of an accident clearly put this option into the forefront of proactive carriers that continue to battle the prevalence of drugs in the systems of prospective truck drivers.  

However, any column that addresses alternative forms of testing for drugs would be incomplete without acknowledging the wait the industry is undergoing regarding hair testing. The benefits of oral fluid testing are prevalent and would allow a carrier more flexibility, if and/or when this proposal is finalized. But as an industry that has also extolled the virtues of hair testing as an alternative method, we continue to wait for DOT, HHS, SAMSHA, and the Office of Drug & Alcohol Policy & Compliance to present our industry with every option available to help identify potential problems that could exist with drivers behind the wheel.

Make no mistake, times change, and incorporating alternative measures in testing for drugs and alcohol is one our industry has long advocated for. Waiting on rules, guidance, and new protocols that have the potential to improve the safety performance of fleets and eliminate drug usage from our highways is paramount to an industry that is dedicated to doing just that.

See also: Study renews debate over trucker drug-testing methods

Alternative forms of testing are one thing; incorporating the results of those tests into the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse is another. Urine-based tests and now the potential for oral fluid testing would certainly elevate the information available to carriers in the clearinghouse. However, fighting half the battle with one alternative measure is great, but allowing hair testing would truly provide carriers with the ultimate flexibility of identifying potential drug users at the time of test and allow for other fleets to reap the benefits of those results by allowing them to be uploaded into the clearinghouse.  

Operating an 80,000-lb. vehicle is a safety-sensitive function, and carriers today pride themselves on ensuring that their drivers are the safest on the roads. It would make the most sense to make every alternative drug and alcohol tests available to those that elect to use them for their DOT drug-testing protocols.  

The oral fluid-testing option is a proposal, one that in regulatory speak is far from the finish line. It’s already taken two and half years to get to this point, so any expectation that this will happen tomorrow would be wholly misguided. To finish, however, one must actually start, and the process of incorporating alternative forms of testing for drugs and alcohol has begun. As an industry, we must take advantage of these applications and use them where they are most applicable to your fleets, all the while continuing to insist that all tools be made available to an industry that has the desire to use them.

About the Author

David Heller

David Heller is the senior vice president of safety and government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association. Heller has worked for TCA since 2005, initially as director of safety, and most recently as the VP of government affairs. Before that, he spent seven years as manager of safety programs for American Trucking Associations.

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