As feds drag feet on driver drug testing updates, carrier group presses for larger reforms

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Updated Sep 24, 2019
The Trucking Alliance argues that hair sample testing is a more reliable way to test for opioids, use of which has surged in recent years.The Trucking Alliance argues that hair sample testing is a more reliable way to test for opioids, use of which has surged in recent years.

More than a year and a half after a federal agency was required to have finished drafting a hair testing policy for screening drivers for drug use, no such guidelines have been produced. Meanwhile, more large fleets are moving to expensive hair testing while still having to pay for urine testing for the same driver applicants.

Since 1991, federal law has required applicants for truck driving jobs to be screened for drug use via a urine sample. However, efforts of late by some of the country’s largest carriers seek to alter that law, hoping instead to see drivers screened via a hair sample test.

The carriers, who make up the trade association the Trucking Alliance, argue that hair sample tests are more reliable in detecting drug use of driver applicants, particularly for users of opioids. Use of the addictive drugs, usually taken in the form of pain pills, has surged in recent years. The Alliance is lobbying Congress for legislation to require driver applicants to be tested via hair sample, either in lieu of or in addition to a urine sample test.

Hair testing provides a more accurate and longer-term look at a potential driver’s prior drug use, says Lane Kidd, managing director of the Alliance. “The industry needs a better method to identify opioid and drug use,” he told Overdrive in May. For a driver applicant to pass a hair test, “You have to have been clean for at least 30 days,” he says. “The only test available today to do that is with hair. If somebody comes up with a better test, let’s use that. The testing method we use today isn’t giving us good results,” he says.

Kidd points to Alliance member J.B. Hunt, which tests drivers via hair and urine samples. Since 2008, Hunt has turned away nearly 6,000 driver applicants who failed a hair sample test but passed a urine test, he says. “Those that J.B. Hunt sent on their way are likely working for another company today,” he says.

However, hair sample tests often cost more for carriers footing the bill for driver applicants, or for independent owner-operators paying for their tests as part of a consortium program. And though hair sample tests provide a longer window into a driver’s drug use, they’re “not [any] more or less reliable” than urine testing, says Tom Fulmer, vice president for business development of National Drug Screening, a national provider of DOT drug tests.

Urine and hair testing are both reliable indicators of drug use, but “different in their detection windows,” he says. “A driver could smoke a joint or snort cocaine and come back in and do a hair test and it’s not going to show up. But with urine, you’re going to detect something in that time frame.”

On the flip side, a driver applicant who takes opioid pain pills hours before a urine test will likely pass, says Kidd, but they will fail a hair sample test.

Fulmer says his company has seen an increase in the number of hair sample tests requested by carriers, despite their higher costs. He says a hair sample test, which requires more lab work, runs about $80 to $120, while urine tests cost $30 to $50.

Ashlee Bonvicin, a vice president at U.S. Drug Test Centers, noted the same, saying her company charges between $70 and $130 for a urine sample test. “Hair tests [cost] about double that, ” she says.

She agrees, however, that hair sample tests are likely better at detecting lifestyle drug users. “It’s hard for an avid user to stop for three months” to enable passing a hair test, she said, whereas some users can go clean for only a few days and pass a urine test.

Costs shouldn’t be an issue that impedes safety, says Kidd, who contends the industry is “relying on erroneous information and data” regarding drug testing, due to urine tests’ inability to detect longer-term drug use. “If we’re missing nine out of 10 opioid users, we have a problem,” he says.

With Hunt’s finding that 7.7 percent of its driver applicants tested positive for opioid use in a hair sample test, “that’s a problem that nobody is looking at,” due to the lack of industry-wide data on the issue, he says.

The 2015 FAST Act highway bill opened the door for broader use of hair sample testing by carriers. It will allow carriers to test drivers exclusively via hair sample, but only after the Department of Health and Human Services creates guidelines for such testing and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration develops a rule to change existing regulations.

The FAST Act gave HHS until December 2016 to produce the guidelines. A year and a half later, the guidelines have yet to be developed. HHS told Overdrive in a statement the guidelines “are in the process of being written,” and that the agency does not have a timeline for when they will be completed. FMCSA’s rulemaking process could take months, if not years, to alter the existing regs after HHS publishes its guidance.

The change wouldn’t require that drivers be tested via hair sample, but it could broaden the use of such tests, given carriers wouldn’t have to perform two tests.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association opposes any moves to require hair sample screening of drivers. It argues that FMCSA data shows drug use was a factor in only half of a percent of crashes.

Kidd rebuts this argument, citing an absence of crash-site driver sampling by investigators. “There needs to be a post-accident test requirement that responders get a hair clipping at the scene,” he says. “That would give us a realistic picture of whether a driver was under the influence.”

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