Professional truck drivers continue to see their world transformed by technology, and many of the changes have received less than an enthusiastic reception from those road warriors. From electronic logging devices to dash cams to self-driving vehicles, the past decade has introduced a rate of change that is often unsettling to the industry.
Hair Drug Testing: Controversial but Coming
One of the most controversial changes gaining momentum is that of testing hair samples for the presence of illicit drugs. The coalition Truck Alliance, representing many of the nation’s largest trucking and transportation companies, is clear in its stance. The group announced recently a strong endorsement for this new technology and more stringent form of drug testing.
A primary reason for the support was listed as its view that the current urinalysis program simply does not get the job done. This view is fully substantiated by a recent study released by the group and conducted by researchers at the University of Central Arkansas. Published in the July 2020 issue of Journal of Transportation Management, the study drew immediate fire from several groups who oppose the adoption of such testing methods. These opponents claim that the tests are racially biased against some groups because of differences in hair composition.
Responding to Congressional Mandate
The findings present to many who are concerned about road safety, as chilling insights into a major potential safety concern. According to the authors of the study, in a comparison of pass/fail rates with urine testing and the same drivers with the hair test, there was a nearly 8 percent discrepancy. In other words, of 151,662 paired tests, only 949 drivers failed the urinalysis, while a total of 12,824 failed when their hair samples were analyzed.
If this result was extrapolated and generalized to the entire driver population, they contend it would result in more than 300,000 such fails. Although it is this generalizing to all drivers that is contested by those in opposition, several authors indicate there is no scientific basis for questioning that analysis.
Congress got the ball rolling on this issue in 2015 when DOT was authorized to recognize hair testing for use with commercial drivers. Guidelines for these tests were to be provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, but that agency is now more than four years behind in meeting that deadline.
A Significant Issue for All
Determining drug use in its drivers is a high priority for the major trucking firms. While these firms are allowed to, and some do, use hair analysis, most have been pressing for the HHS to establish the stricter drug testing as protocol. DOT currently accepts only urine analysis and officials say it cannot use the new methods without those guidelines from HHS.
The push for the enhanced capabilities is due to the suspected, and now proved with this study, ease of faking results from urine testing. Urine tests share the problems of:
- Substituting urine with others or “safe” samples.
- A detection window of only 30 days, while opiates can disappear from samples in as little as two days and cocaine in three.
- Inability to clearly link the sample to the individual.
- On the other hand, hair samples can detect drug use for up to 90 days in the past, and they use a follicle that can be matched by DNA if required. As this issue gains momentum, expect the pressure on HHS presented by this study to provide near-term action and industry testing changes.