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The case for hair testing in trucking

Dec. 21, 2020
Fleets should be able to use the necessary resources to fight the ‘War on Drugs.’

Believe it or not, June 2021 will represent 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one,” leading to a rise in popularity of the phrase the “War on Drugs.”  While this brief history lesson is interesting enough, it certainly dates many of us who remember the term often enough. If the war on drugs is still resonating, our industry has shown that it embraces that concept with the additional firepower that recent advancements to our industry drug testing programs would allow it to do.

I write this column within mere days of the Truckload Carriers Association submitting comments in regard to recent guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) pertaining to the incorporation of hair testing for drugs into federal drug testing programs. These guidelines, long expected after being mandated by the FAST Act, have been years in the making. Proactive carriers, however, have employed these alternative drug testing programs for their own volition in determining the history of drug use amongst their potential new drivers or existing ones in a random pool. I mention this to highlight the fact that while the war on drugs has raged on for years, the trucking industry is doing its part in actually fighting it.

The perplexing part of the recent guidelines issued by HHS is the fact that they will potentially lessen the effectiveness of an alternative drug testing program that has already demonstrated itself as having a major impact on identifying drug users among our fleets. As the guidelines state, any positive drug test, through the use of hair, would require a follow-up sample to be tested, provided there is no logical excuse for the positive result. The problem is that the follow-up test, which would be urine or oral fluid based, would likely test negative. As we know, these two tests examine whether a driver could be under the influence or has recently used drugs from one to seven days, while hair testing demonstrates a history of drug use up to approximately 90 days.

From a safety perspective, the alternative specimen test requirement would allow an unacceptable number of individuals who test positive on the hair test but negative on the urine or oral fluid test to remain in safety-sensitive positions. If moved forward in its current form as outlined by HHS, this program effectively renders a hair test for drug use as a useless step toward compliance with the testing protocols.

What makes this guidance so problematic for an industry that prides itself on upholding its zero-tolerance policy is that it basically renders a test that has demonstrated tremendous effectiveness in identifying drivers who have used drugs within their recent past as a mindless extra step that, in the end, may have little to no impact in combatting drug use behind the wheel.

Is hair testing effective? Of course it is. In fact, the Trucking Alliance has reported through research conducted by the University of Central Arkansas that almost 300,000 professional truck drivers would fail a hair test for drug use today, if they were to partake in this form of alternative drug testing. Still, hair testing is not yet allowed to pacify the Department of Transportation’s drug testing protocols.

Even more importantly, the prevalence of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s new Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse has provided our industry with a tool to discover prior positive drug test results on drivers throughout our industry. The greater problem with the guidelines put forward by HHS is that the original positive test results derived from hair would be unable to be admitted to the Clearinghouse. While many carriers have successfully implemented hair testing for drugs as part of their fleet’s program, the inability to include these results, either now or with the original positive result in the HHS guidance, ignores one of the very benefits that this type of test can actually provide. 

The Clearinghouse was developed as an opportunity to share positive drug test results across the industry in hopes of identifying problem drivers, preventing them from getting behind the wheel of a commercial motor vehicle, and getting them the help they need to address their problems.  Without the ability to input all the positive results – urine, hair, or oral fluid – the industry is handicapped in its desire to continue fighting the 50-year war.

The guidance derived by HHS was written to avoid any possible litigation, but our industry would be the one that is litigated against regardless. Countless carriers across this nation have implemented this program because it is the right thing to do for our safety. Providing our industry with the tools to reduce and eliminate the potential for drugs on our highways should be a primary goal of any regulating body. 

In order to help finally put an end to this long-running war, trucking should be allowed to use the ammunition it has available to actually fight and win.

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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