SPECIAL REPORT: Drug testing needs improvement, not clearinghouse

| 11/2/2007

Friday, Nov. 2, 2007 – When it comes to supporting the goal of making the trucking industry free of drug and alcohol abuse, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is all for it – if it’s done right.

That’s the stance OOIDA took at a Nov. 1 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Highways and Transit on drug and alcohol testing of commercial motor vehicle drivers.

The hearing was the culmination of several months of investigations by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Government Accountability Office staff. The GAO released a report on the day of the hearing that did not give a glowing report on the industry’s drug testing procedures and regulatory compliance.

The GAO’s comments didn’t come as any big surprise to OOIDA. However, in his testimony to the subcommittee, OOIDA Director of Regulatory Affairs Rick Craig pointed out that many of the proposed solutions to fixing the problems with the drug testing won’t do anything to reduce drug use in the industry and may very well just create more problems.

Clearinghouse concerns
One of the options discussed at the hearing was a national clearinghouse of positive drug and alcohol testing results, proposed by the American Trucking Association.

“OOIDA fully supports the goal of striving to make the trucking industry free of drug and alcohol abuse,” Craig said in his testimony. “However, OOIDA remains unconvinced of the need for a national clearinghouse for positive drug and alcohol testing results.”

Collecting positive test results in a single database presents a variety of potential problems according to Craig.

For starters, simply collecting the results will not guarantee that a motor carrier actually removes a driver with a positive drug or alcohol test from performing safety functions.

The proposed clearinghouse also raises considerable privacy, operational, security and oversight concerns. The Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizure, including those inside the human body.

How the data collected by either the federal government or a contract third-party provider would be used, who has access to it, its security and its accuracy were just a few of the numerous concerns Craig raised.

“The ATA proposal casts a wide net without any assurances that necessary privacy precautions can be accomplished,” Craig said.

It’s not inconceivable that there could be drivers who would be victims of such a system, he added.

Craig pointed out that in OOIDA’s view, all that ATA’s proposed clearinghouse appears to accomplish is to “lift a burden from motor carriers’ shoulders and reduce carriers’ liability with regard to their often inadequate hiring practices.”

Off-the mark in Oregon
One drug testing program receiving national attention and purported as a success was “Operation Trucker Check” conducted by the Oregon Highway Patrol in April and September of this year.

During Operation Trucker Check, voluntary and anonymous urine specimens were collected. The OHP reported that one out of every 10 samples collected tested positive for certain types of drugs. That 10 percent rate is much higher than the national average of 2 percent reported by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

That alone raises concerns about the procedures used in Operation Trucker Check, according to Craig. He explained to the subcommittee that there are simple, viable explanations as to why Oregon’s results came back so high.

“There are numerous safeguards built into the DOT testing criteria. One such safeguard provides for specific cutoff concentrations … The cutoff levels are employed to minimize the incidence of false positive tests that may result from ‘innocent’ activities such as the ingestion of certain legal substances,” Craig explained.

“It’s OOIDA’s understanding that (the Oregon Highway Patrol) used no cutoff concentration criteria to guard against false positives.”

In addition to setting cut-off points, the DOT testing procedures outline what happens when a sample comes back positive. It’s not a “one strike and you’re out” scenario. Anyone with a positive result in a DOT test will be contacted by a Medical Review Officer.

“An important part of the Medical Review Officer’s duties involves making contact with a driver for which a positive test result is confirmed to inquire about any medications the driver may have used, or determine whether there is any other legitimate medical explanation,” Craig said.

There’s plenty of legitimate reasons for a false positive, Craig explained to the subcommittee, including legally prescribed medications that have no impact on a trucker’s ability to drive.

“Under an anonymous collection and testing regime such as Oregon describes there can be no such follow up to determine whether the result is a false positive,” Craig said.

A simple solution
The core of the problem with the drug-testing program is that there isn’t a real incentive for drug-free truckers.

“The current system subjects the vast majority of drivers, who are not drug users, to a costly and burdensome testing program that does not offer them any direct reward for their continued drug-free status,” Craig told the subcommittee. “Nor is there any reward for employers whose exemplary driver hiring and training programs result in a drug-free group of drivers.”

Craig proposed a simple solution that focuses more directly on detecting the small group of drug users while at the same time rewarding drug-free drivers and their employers.

He said a system could be set up that allows drivers who have repeatedly tested negative on random drug tests and have never had a positive DOT drug test result of any kind to be removed from the pool of drivers subject to the annual 50 percent random drug testing requirement. They would then be placed in a separate pool subject to an annual 25 percent random testing rate.

All other drivers – those who have not proven themselves to be drug free – should still be subject to the 50 percent testing requirement, according to Craig.

– By Jami Jones, senior editor