This story appears in the Jan. 28 print edition of Transport Topics.
The percentage of truck drivers testing positive on random drug tests during 2011 dropped to the lowest level since mandatory testing began almost two decades ago, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The positive rate was 0.9% for the 492,000 drivers in the 2011 sample, DOT said.
The 2011 total was lower than the 1% of 455,000 drivers who tested positive in 2010, and less than half the 2.2% rate for the 438,000 drivers tested in 1996 when regulations first required all carriers to conduct random tests, according to data that DOT and its Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration supplied Transport Topics.
Trucking industry leaders cautioned that the percentages may not accurately reflect drug use among drivers.
“We certainly think [the results are] encouraging, but we are very aware of the limitations of urine testing, so urge some caution in reviewing the results,” said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations.
Carriers are required under federal law to do only urine testing on drivers and prospective hires, and many in the industry have concluded urine testing is not as effective as hair testing.
ATA supports changes that would allow carriers to choose between hair tests and urine tests for drivers.
“If our goal is to keep [drug users] from entering the industry, then hair is a superior gatekeeper,” Abbott said.
DOT, asked for comment on the results, said through spokesman Justin Nisly: “We work closely with our partners in the trucking industry on education and enforcement efforts, and we’re pleased that the positive drug test rate for truck drivers fell to an all-time low this year.”
The overriding issue between the two different methods is hair testing’s effectiveness.
“We get five to 10 times the number when you do side-by-side comparisons,” said Ray Kubacki, CEO of the testing firm Psychemedics Corp., which does hair testing for several carriers.
On the surface, the latest data look like “good news,” said Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety at Schneider National Inc., which has conducted hair testing on prospective drivers since 2008. But he cautioned the industry not to “embrace” the low positive rate of 0.9% on random tests “as somehow good enough.”
“What we have to do is to really look at it, perhaps more deeply, to say, ‘Is it in fact that; or potentially, is that improvement an indicator that commercial drivers have gotten smarter on how to defeat a urine-based drug test?’ Because certainly that is a possibility,” said Osterberg.
When Schneider compared urine test results with hair test results over a four-year period for prospective hires, the carrier found that 120 prospects tested positive via the urine tests but that 1,400 tested positive via the hair tests.
Henry Jasny, general counsel for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, also said it’s time to consider hair testing.
“We’ve heard there are advantages to the hair testing,” he said. “We just haven’t fully examined that issue, but we’re going to.”
Federal regulations currently require carriers to randomly test — via urinalysis — 50% of drivers annually for possible drug use. But the regulations also allow the 50% requirement to drop to 25% if the trucking industry has two consecutive years in which the positive rate for random tests is less than 1%.
Trucking is the last transportation sector required to test 50% of its critical workers. Other sectors — such as railroads and public transit workers — already have reduced their positive random test rates to less than 1% for two consecutive years, DOT said.
“If you talk to the fleets that are employing hair testing, they’ll tell you that the positive rates are far higher on hair than on urine,” said ATA’s Abbott.
Although the majority of trucking companies do not do hair testing, Abbott said, those that do represent many truck drivers “because we’re talking about firms that employ 10,000 to 15,000 truck drivers each.”
Osterberg said he will be in Washington this week meeting with lawmakers in hopes of persuading them to allow fleets to use hair testing in place of urine testing.
A bill to create a pilot program on hair testing was introduced in December by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.). They have said they will reintroduce the bill this year.