Nearly 300,000 truck drivers would be fired if hair drug tests were required, UCA study shows

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 16,617 views 

About 300,000 truck drivers in the United States would be removed from their positions if required to pass a hair drug test instead of a urinalysis, which might not be sufficient enough to catch those who use illicit drugs, according to a new report.

Doug Voss and Joe Cangelosi, both professors at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway, completed research on using hair and urine samples for drug testing and whether hair tests are racially biased. Voss is a professor of logistics and supply chain management. Cangelosi is a professor of marketing. The Alliance for Driver Safety and Security, or The Trucking Alliance, paid for the research and was released in a 33-page report.

Voss said he started on the research about a year ago, and the peer-reviewed research was recently accepted by the “Journal for Transportation Management.”

“I’m always surprised when someone would get out on the road in an 80,000-pound truck and be high on some sort of illicit substance,” Voss said. “To find out that there are nearly 300,000 truck drivers on the road that should not be on the road if we just used a different test is really surprising and a little scary.”

Most things people own have been transported by truck at some point, and about 3.5 million truck drivers haul almost 71% of U.S. freight, the report shows. The U.S. government requires all prospective truck drivers to pass a urine drug test before they can drive, but those tests are “easily thwarted,” according to the research. Even so, some trucking companies use hair drug screenings, which are more rigorous.

“Hair testing opponents argue that the test is biased against ethnic minority groups,” according to the report. “Comparing urine and hair pass/fail rates for various ethnic groups, our results indicate ethnic groups are significantly different irrespective of testing procedure. Factors other than testing method seem to underlie ethnic group pass/fail rate differences.”

Asked what would the industry do if 300,000 drivers were removed from their positions, Voss said the short answer would be to hire better people.

“The better answer would be what would they do if they don’t take those 300,000 people off the road,” he said. “The cost of keeping those people on the road is exorbitant. It’s morally wrong to let someone drive a truck high.

“The trucking industry has a moral obligation to be as safe as it can possibly be,” he added. “This is a step that they can take to do things better. I think the vast majority of the trucking industry agrees with that statement. They’re fantastic companies, and they want to do things the right way.”

Voss noted the federal government needs to recognize hair testing, which is about twice the cost of a urine test. Companies that require urine and hair tests are being “penalized” for having to do both, he said. Yet, if doing both tests saves the company from one crash, it pays for the added cost.

“In the age of nuclear legal verdicts, the cost of accidents is quite prohibitive,” Voss said.

Rising insurance rates as a result of large legal verdicts have led trucking companies to improve their safety performance, the research shows. The high rates were a factor in the nearly tripling of carrier bankruptcies in the first half of 2019, from the same period in 2018.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) uses the Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) program to measure a carrier’s safety performance. The CSA gathers data from roadside inspections and crash reports, including violations related to controlled substances and alcohol. A correlation exists between safety incidents and violations of controlled substances and alcohol, according to the report.

Truck drivers who use psychoactive substances have reduced driving competence and an increased risk of safety incidents. Prospective drivers who take a urine drug test could refrain from illicit drug use for three days and pass the test before starting to drive and using the drugs again, the report shows. Urine tests usually capture one’s illicit drug use over the past two or three days.

“To beat a urine test, it’s not something I’ve ever tried to do, but in the course of this research, we’ve figured out it’s really not that hard to do,” Voss said. “If you are using illicit drugs and you want to beat the test, just stop using those drugs for about three days. And then go take the test, and you’re fine. That’s not the same with hair testing. That has a lookback period of about three months. If you’re a chronic drug user, that’s going to much harder to beat.”

The report cites a 1998 study in which Oregon enforcement agencies completed unannounced urine drug screens of truck drivers during roadside and port of entry inspections. Because the tests were not previously announced, the drivers could not prepare for the test. Of the 822 urine samples, 21% contained substances including stimulants, cannabinoids and alcohol.

Existing federally accepted testing possibly is not sufficient to deter or find drivers who use illicit drugs that reduce their driving performance, according to the report. As a result of the inefficiency and that hair testing is not federally recognized, carriers such as Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Schneider, Knight-Swift Transportation, Werner Enterprises and Maverick USA use hair drug tests to ensure drivers are sober.

The report also cites a 2019 study by The Trucking Alliance that compared pass and fail rates for urine and hair drug tests. It included 151,662 hair and urine tests that were completed by 15 carriers before a prospective driver was hired. The results showed 0.6%, or 949 applicants, failed the urine test while 8.5%, or 12,824, failed or refused the hair test. Those who refuse to take a drug or alcohol test are considered to have failed it, according to the FMCSA.

If the study results were spread across the U.S. driver population, nearly 300,000 existing drivers would not be allowed to drive if required to pass a hair drug test.

The Trucking Alliance asked UCA to complete two studies to independently determine whether its 2019 study could be attributed to the overall U.S. driver population and if hair testing was biased against ethnic groups based on the pass and fail rates for drug tests. According to the researchers’ report, The Trucking Alliance’s study sample was large enough to be attributed across the entire U.S. driver population, is representative of the population, and hair and urine test results can be “generalized across the national driver population. This supports the notion that roughly 275,000 current drivers would be unable to perform safety-sensitive functions if forced to undergo hair testing.”

The report noted that research into the trucking industry has risen recently, but the researchers were unaware of any works that addressed drug testing or the implications of carriers using hair testing instead of or along with urine testing. Federal agencies, however, do not allow carriers to use hair testing in place of urine testing. As a result, carriers that require hair testing must also complete urine testing to comply with federal requirements.

While the hair test costs more to complete than the urinalysis, UCA researchers said carriers should consider doing hair testing along with the urine test. The added cost could be more than offset by the added cost of safety events that were prevented.

“Future investigations may wish to examine trucking company drug testing best practices, such as when drivers are most likely to test positive or the relationship between the number of positive random drug screens and safety performance,” the researchers said. “Such research would be quite interesting. On one hand, higher random drug screen failure rates may indicate a more effective drug testing program, and therefore, fewer safety incidents. However, if random failure rates increase, driver recruitment and selection problems clearly exist.”

With regard to racial bias, the report cites a 2010 study that compares urine and hair test results among white and black Americans and finds no racial bias between the tests, which were to detect cocaine use.

UCA researchers, in their study, used urine and hair test results from three carriers. The tests were completed between 2017 and 2019 and comprised more than 145,000 tests, of which about half were urine tests. Researchers used the four-fifths rule to determine if bias was a factor. To comply with the rule, ethnic groups must pass the drug tests at a rate of at least 80% compared to the ethnic group with the highest passing rate. Drivers who chose not to specify their ethnicity passed the urine test at the lowest rate, which was 98.7% of the ethnic group with the highest passing rate. And this exceeded the required rate to comply with the four-fifths rule.

Drivers who represented black and multiple ethnic groups who took the hair test passed at the lowest rate, which was 95.5% of the ethnic group with the highest passing rate. This also exceeded the required rate to comply with the four-fifth rule.

As a result, UCA researchers didn’t find disparate impacts of hair testing among ethnic groups.

Link here to the research report.

Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, sent the following statement to Talk Business & Politics after the story was posted:

“Your headline and the premise of your story completely undermine the professionalism of the thousands of commercial truck drivers and the $7 billion dollars spent annually by the trucking industry to ensure that we are investing in the best equipment, technology and people to safely deliver freight.

Hair testing is not currently recognized as an approved methodology by the U.S. Department of Transportation to meet the requirements imposed on motor carriers to comply with federal drug and alcohol regulations passed down by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The Arkansas Trucking Association firmly believes that it should be.  We advocated for the passage of the FAST Act five years ago, where Congress mandated USDOT and U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services to promulgate rules approving hair testing as an alternative to urinalysis.

We are aggressively working to advance the regulatory actions that will allow hair testing to be recognized.  When research like this verifies an effective way to uncover drug use and make the roads safer, we should compel the regulating agencies to act on that data with appropriate policies. That is why we support regulatory action that will allow hair testing to recognized as a substitute for urinalysis and for results to be submitted to the national Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse.

The carriers who are currently using hair testing should be commended for their commitment to safety as they continue to incur the added costs of duplicative drug tests to remain in compliance with Department of Transportation rules.

The trucking industry is united in its efforts to keep drug users out of commercial vehicles. We believe in hiring the best, safest, most qualified candidates who will safely deliver America’s freight.

Keeping drivers who habitually use drugs out of the cabs of commercial vehicles is in everyone’s best interest.”