Truck Drivers Who Fail Drug Tests: Where Are They Going?

ATRI Study Shows Many Aren’t Taking Steps to Return
Image depicting truckers and drug tests
"Most [drivers] have not completed the return-to-work process and instead opted to remain outside of the interstate trucking industry,” ATRI said in its study. (American Transportation Research Institute)

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says its Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse is having the intended effect of taking large numbers of drivers caught using drugs off the highways. However, a persistent concern is that 146,000 drivers remain in prohibited driving status after failing their drug tests.

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Most are not enrolling in the required return-to-duty agency process, according to FMCSA, and seem to be exiting the profession in the midst of a driver shortage.

Despite a recent illuminating research report by the American Transportation Research Institute that focused on driver marijuana test failures, FMCSA said it has no research of its own yet to explain why the large majority of drivers who test positive for at least one of the 14 substances tested appear to be moving to what they view as greener pastures — maybe even for less money.

Marijuana accounts for about 58% of all positive agency drug tests. But even nearly three years after the Clearinghouse opened, no one seems to know where all those drivers appear to be going to work, or even taking on a different career field.

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The June ATRI report tried to shed light on the continuing mystery, concluding that most likely the drivers not enrolling in the return-to-work program are accepting other jobs with lower pay rather than returning to the current nationwide driver pool that already is said to be critically short.

The ATRI study concluded: “Data confirms that most [drivers] have not completed the return-to-work process and instead opted to remain outside of the interstate trucking industry.”

Marijuana is a unique problem. Truck drivers cannot use marijuana at all. Zero tolerance. Smoking a joint can cause a driver to fail his or her drug test. If that happens, a driver must successfully complete a return-to-work program, which requires evaluation by a substance abuse professional, participation in a treatment program and passing a follow-up drug test.

To be clear, the number of drivers who test positive for marijuana use is growing. As of the end of August, 127,356 drivers have tested positive for marijuana since the Clearinghouse opened in January 2020. As of August 2022, the number that had tested positive for pot was 88,648.

“Since Jan. 6, 2020, more than 207,000 commercial drivers have had at least one violation reported to the FMCSA Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse,” FMCSA said in a statement to Transport Topics. “This indicates the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse is functioning as Congress intended by identifying drivers not legally authorized to operate a CMV due to a drug or alcohol violation.


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“It is important to point out that a significant percentage of these drivers tested positive for controlled substances other than, or in addition to, marijuana. Specifically, 42% of the positive controlled substances tests reported to the Clearinghouse included prohibited substances other than marijuana.”

In its statement, FMCSA noted that in calendar years 2021 and 2022, more than 1 million new CDL driver records were added to the Commercial Driver’s License Information System by states — a “robust indicator of new drivers entering the industry. Therefore, we believe FMCSA’s drug and alcohol program is improving safety by directly holding individual drivers accountable for drug and alcohol violations and completing the RTD requirements.”

But FMCSA said it does not have its own research or data that illustrates why commercial drivers with Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse violations have not started the readily available return-to-duty process, or what kind of work the individuals pursue after becoming prohibited from operating commercial motor vehicles that require a commercial driver license.

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“However, anecdotally, FMCSA routinely hears from individual drivers who report that hiring motor carriers often have zero-tolerance company policies and will not consider applicants who are in the return-to-duty process and require follow-up testing,” the FMCSA statement said.

Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association President Todd Spencer put it less delicately.

“If you test positive, you just as well forget it,” Spencer said. “The rest of the story is that somebody might hire you, but not the better companies.

“I know from my personal awareness of what goes on in trucking is that if you hire a driver that’s got a positive test on the record and you’re involved in any big accident, that’s going to be used against you.”