The American Trucking Associations is pushing Congress and the Department of Transportation to set up a national system to identify truck drivers who have tested positive for drugs and alcohol.
ATA says there is a loophole in the current system, which says it is up to the driver to report to a prospective employer that he tested positive in his former job. If he does not, the carrier might wind up hiring a person who has not been evaluated, treated and cleared for duty.
ATA cited the experience of a Dallas drug testing company, Compliance Safety Systems, that found 2,580 drivers who tested positive on a pre-employment test for one company and then negative for a different company within 21 days. That is not enough time for a driver to be evaluated, treated and cleared, ATA said.
"It is not uncommon for us to see the same Social Security number, the same donor, come through the system two or three times a week with two or three different companies," said David Saunders, president of Compliance Safety Systems. "It alarmed me, because they clearly used a drug. Because the drug has only a short shelf life they could be positive today with negative tomorrow, and you'd never know that."
According to ATA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration visited Saunders' company during an investigation of this issue and found that during a recent 15-day period, 69 drivers tested positive, and 21 of those drivers returned and tested negative.
"ATA and its members believe that state-based reporting efforts are a good first step, but the optimal solution is a national clearinghouse," said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves.
The percentage of positive drug tests among truck drivers is low – between 2 percent and 2.5 percent – compared to the general workplace. But it has remained at that level since drug and alcohol testing began in 1995, and it means that around 68,000 drivers have a problem, according to ATA.
ATA also noted that while illegal drugs are not a major factor in truck accidents, some incidents are drug-related. Last July, for example, in Little Rock, Ark., a truck driver killed a family of five and later admitted he had smoked crack cocaine a few hours before the crash. And in August 2006 in Pennsylvania, a truck driver on cocaine was in a crash that killed an Indiana man.
"Anything we can do to improve safety is good for ATA members and the industry overall," Graves said.
ATA has drafted a bill that would require DOT to set up a national clearinghouse. The proposal would give employers three days to report a positive drug or alcohol test, or a refusal to take a test. Employers who are hiring would have to request test results from the clearinghouse, with the driver's permission.
The bill sets security measures. For example, users would have to be registered and authenticated, a log of data requests would be kept, and pre-employment screening services would not be able to release information to anyone who is not authorized to receive it. Civil and criminal penalties would apply for violations.
The bill would authorize $2.5 million a year for FMCSA to run the program.
Graves said he would like to move the bill as quickly as possible, but in any event will target the next highway reauthorization bill, due in 2009, as a likely legislative vehicle.
Dave Osiecki, ATA vice president of safety and operations, added that the association has been working with FMCSA to demonstrate the size and scope of the problem. "They acknowledge it," he said. "They are looking into it."
ATA also has introduced the idea on Capitol Hill, Osiecki said. Members and their staffs know about the proposal. "We'll be continuing our conversations."
The idea is going to run into opposition from the owner-operator segment of the industry. "We think it would be inappropriate for any employer in any industry to be asking the federal government to set up a data base to screen its workers," said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. "It's totally beyond the pale in terms of what government should be doing."
Under the rules, commercial drivers must undergo urine drug testing and breath alcohol testing on five occasions: pre-employment, random and post-accident, reasonable suspicion and return-to-duty. The drug test looks for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates and phencyclidine or PCP.
Done properly, the clearinghouse would help employers detect violators before putting them on the road, the agency said. It also said the program could alleviate concerns such as owner-operators continuing to drive after a positive test, former employers not providing test information to prospective employers, and employers ignoring the tests because want to keep or hire the driver.
The agency noted that there are "significant obstacles." Among them: registering and authenticating as many as 750,000 users including employers and medical review officers, and getting all employers to participate and report positive test results in a timely way.
The agency's report included a long list of recommendations. It said, for example, that the law should prohibit any competing databases, that FMCSA should be able to collect user fees from carriers and that failure to enter test results in time must be heavily sanctioned and penalized.