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Dreamstime Xl 166124516 Hair Testing

Opinion: Why not hair testing?

July 14, 2022
The industry is ethically bound to improve safety wherever it can to reduce truck-crash injuries and fatalities. TCA's Heller points out that including hair testing in the federal Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse is the next logical step in this mission.

Zero emissions. The road to zero. It seems as if zero has ingrained itself in transportation culture as the ultimate endgame, yet we continue to slowly plod toward a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol on our nation’s roadways. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently issued proposed rulemaking to include oral fluid testing in the national transportation drug testing program. But why not hair testing

Clearly, I am not the only one with this thought. In April, the Trucking Alliance filed a request to amend within the program the definition of actual knowledge of drug use to include an employer’s knowledge of a driver’s positive hair test. In effect, carriers would be required to report positive hair test results to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse and to other inquiring carriers.

Onlookers outside our industry might be surprised to find that trucking is outpacing federal regulators on trying to heighten testing stringency and remove unsafe, drug-using drivers from our roadways. Those within trucking know all too well that safety is everything. In fact, this continued effort to identify and dismiss unsafe drivers is happening while there is a severe shortage of truck drivers—proving how highly carriers prioritize this issue.

And for good reason. According to the National Safety Transportation Board, up to 35% of all truck drivers killed in motor vehicle accidents have tested positive for illegal drugs. Fatal accidents in general are on the rise; nearly 43,000 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2021, up 10.5% over 2020. Over the past 20 years, deadly traffic accidents involving cannabis have doubled.

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

As mentioned in the Trucking Alliance petition, the trucking industry is ethically bound to improve safety wherever it can to reduce truck-crash injuries and fatalities. Including hair testing in the clearinghouse is the next logical step in this mission.

To start, hair drug testing is more reliable than urine analysis. It captures a larger timeframe for drug use than urine testing, since it can detect drugs taken within the last 90 days from when a person uses a drug. While hair testing is less able to flag very recent drug use, it is more effective in identifying habitual drug users, who are more likely to continue use or drive impaired. In fact, drug usage on the day of, or days immediately prior, to the pre-employment drug test is reasonably unlikely.

One research study found that among 1,446 drivers randomly tested for drugs, 0.62% tested positive for drugs using the urine test, while 3.1% tested positive for drugs using the hair test—nearly five times that rate.

Hair testing also is a more thorough means of drug testing and negates any driver’s claim of “second-hand smoke.” The drug must be ingested to metabolize and deposit in the hair follicle. Even if marijuana smoke got in your hair during an encounter with a smoker, your hair will not have evidence of marijuana metabolites unless inhaled. Also, when done properly, washing one’s hair has proven successful in avoiding false positive tests. 

See also: Drug and alcohol testing and the driver shortage

Hair testing also provides less opportunity for drivers to cheat results. Since the collection of urine analysis is not directly observed, drivers could adulterate (i.e., water down) or substitute the specimen. Additionally, a report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that undercover investigators successfully used fake driver’s licenses to gain access to all 24 testing sites in the study, proving that a drug-using driver could send someone else with false identification to take their drug test for them. Moreover, the GAO report found that “75% of the urine collection sites GAO tested failed to restrict access to items that could be used to adulterate or dilute the specimen, meaning that running water, soap, or air freshener was available in the bathroom during the test.” 

Even the sometimes slow-to-react halls of Congress have twice demonstrated they believe hair testing is worthwhile. Congress mandated government agencies provide guidelines for hair testing through the 2015 FAST Act and the 2018 Opioid Crisis Response Act; however, regulators have failed to fully address and include hair testing. 

FMCSA data shows that from 2012 to 2017, there were 1,265 fatal accidents involving large trucks, where post-accident analysis resulted in at least one positive drug test. If hair testing had been included in the clearinghouse and more widely used within the industry, maybe lives could have been saved. 

As noted in the petition, if it is not successful, then some carriers will continue to use hair drug testing; however, they will not be able to report positive results to the clearinghouse or other inquiring carriers. In effect, carriers still will not be able to see if a prospective driver has previously failed any hair drug tests. Therefore, they may hire and put on the road a driver with proven drug use.

David Heller is the senior vice president of safety and government affairs at 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.

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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