Safety & Compliance

A Better Way to Drug Test? Hair Testing Reveals Disturbing Facts About Driver Drug Use and DOT Requirements

November 2011, - Feature

by Tom Nunlist, Contributor & Oliver B. Patton, Washington Editor

SHARING TOOLS        | Print Subscribe

In late 2005 and early 2006, two J.B. Hunt drivers were involved in accidents that claimed three lives. Both drivers had clean records, but both tested positive at the scene for cocaine.

Hair testing has gotten better over the years. Labs have standardized their procedures. And demand is rising, which will presumably continue to drive quality up and cost down.
Hair testing has gotten better over the years. Labs have standardized their procedures. And demand is rising, which will presumably continue to drive quality up and cost down.

The Arkansas-based transportation and logistics company decided it was time for a change.

"We did what the Department of Transportation said we had to do, but they got through the system," said David Whiteside, senior director of compliance at J.B. Hunt. "We started looking at what we could do to keep this from happening again."

Whiteside had heard about the benefits of hair testing. It offered a longer look back into an applicant's past and made it more difficult for a drug user to cheat. Following the two fatal crashes, and a 2005 incident where drug use and trafficking were uncovered at a maintenance facility, J.B. Hunt became the first major carrier to adopt hair testing as a method for drug screening.

Company safety officials guessed that when they started testing hair, they were going to catch quite a few people who had slipped past urine tests. They were right.

"The first couple of weeks, we were testing just under 15% positive," said Whiteside. By comparison, the company's positive rate on urine tests ranged from 1% to 1.5%. The company's positive rate for hair testing has since dropped to 4%, much better but still much higher than urine tests.

Since then major trucking fleets such as Schneider National, C.R. England and Gordon Trucking have joined J.B. Hunt in adopting hair testing. These carriers, along with the American Trucking Associations, are pushing to have hair testing added to the list of federally accepted tests maintained by The Department of Health and Human Services.

"A lot of data from our member carriers shows that it is a superior method of drug testing," said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy at ATA.

'A stupidity test'

"With a urine test, what we are really asking is, 'Does the candidate know how to use the Internet?'" quipped Mark Freemal, sales manager at Omega Laboratories, a provider of hair testing services for the trucking industry. "Our president calls it a stupidity test."

A quick Google search reveals dozens of websites that provide detailed instructions on defeating urine tests, and even risk assessments should you be caught cheating. The market is flooded with drug-masking products, many of which, according to anecdotes, work fairly well.

The practice of defeating and falsifying urine tests is widespread enough in the trucking industry to have prompted a Government Accountability Office investigation in 2007 that uncovered some disturbing problems.

Undercover investigators were able to use bogus commercial driver's licenses at 24 drug-testing sites, proving that a driver could easily send a substitute in with a fake ID. In addition, 22 of the 24 sites did not follow testing protocols, which opened the door to further cheating, GAO found.

Beyond cheating, urine testing is limited even if done properly. Generally, it cannot detect use of heavier drugs longer than two or three days after use. Cocaine, methamphetamine and opiates are in and out of the digestive system very quickly. It's possible to party hard on Friday and pass a test on Tuesday. As a result, companies don't get an accurate idea of what a driver does in his or her free time.

By contrast, telltale remains of illicit substances reside in the core of hair follicles permanently. That goes for nearly all popular drugs, with the exception of LSD, which basically is impossible to test for, and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), which is difficult to detect for a variety of reasons.

Beyond signaling the presence of difficult-to-detect substances, hair tests provide a better picture than urine into a person's usage history and behavior. This is what many trucking companies find most useful.

A typical 1.5-inch hair sample from the head delivers about a 90-day record. With body hair, that number goes up due to a slower growth rate. Bald test candidates usually provide armpit hair samples, though technically any hair of sufficient length will work.

This much greater time period, matched with a somewhat higher threshold for testing positive, means test results tend to reveal habitual use rather than one-time exposure. A driver indulging once at the 4th of July barbecue is unlikely to raise a red flag. But a driver using drugs two or three times a week will almost certainly get caught. And really, the purpose of a drug screening program is to eliminate risk caused by habitually irresponsible people.

Hair testing may shield the occasionally indulgent driver from detection, but based on the experience of carriers who are using it, the testing indicates that drug use among truckers is more widespread than previously thought. It also shows that urine tests don't work as well to keep habitual drug-using drivers off the road.

C.R. England randomly tests around a fourth of incoming drivers during the employment process. Dustin England, vice president of safety, said the company has found urine tests are positive around 2% of the time. Hair tests, however, raise a flag in roughly 10% of applicants.

According to Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety and security at Schneider National, the company caught around 6% of drivers when they first started hair testing, compared to 1% or less with urine tests. Its hair test fail rate has since dropped to just below 4%, similar to J.B. Hunt, whose drivers still fail hair tests for marijuana three times as often as urine tests.

"Most people are shocked" at usage rates, said Omega Labs' Freemal.

The official word

Even with clear benefits over the traditional urine test, and with much support from the trucking industry, hair testing has yet to make it onto the Department of Health and Human Services' roster of officially accepted tests.

HHS, through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, sets the federal rules for workplace drug testing. The Department of Trans­portation falls under that umbrella.

That means hair testing is an optional, additional test for carriers at this point. Carriers are on firm legal ground if they use hair test results to turn away a driver applicant. The rules say they cannot use a driver if they have actual knowledge of drug use.

But the current system has limitations. For the DOT-mandatory pre-employment screening, a company may not submit a hair test result in place of a urine test. So if a carrier wants to use hair testing, it still has to pay for urine tests as well to meet the federal drug-testing regs.

Hair tests also are more expensive than urine tests. According to Freemal at Omega Labs, an individual test can cost $60 on the high end, although companies can find ways to make it cheaper. C.R. England, for example, owns its own clinic, Lakeside Medical, driving down the overall cost. Still, bulk urine screening generally works out to just a few dollars per test.

That does not mean hair testing is a bad investment. The return may be difficult to pin down, because it's hard to prove that an accident was avoided, but the carriers involved think the extra peace of mind is money well spent.

"We have certainly eliminated some risk," said Dustin England.

So why hasn't hair testing gotten the approval of HHS? It has come up as a proposed rulemaking in the past, most notably in 1999 when the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Drug Testing Advisory Board convened the Hair Testing Working Group to assess the viability of hair testing.

Carl Selavka, a toxicologist who performs accreditation inspections for the National Lab Certification Program for HHS, was co-chair of the group.

The aim, he said, was to evaluate laboratory standards for testing hair. The group answered a number of questio

ns, such as the overall accuracy of hair testing, and addressed some commonly held misconceptions regarding bias.

For example, a notion has been floating around for years, based on a questionable scientific study involving rats, that darker hair absorbs drugs and their metabolites (digested drugs) more readily than fair hair. This led to concern about racial bias in hair testing, but after several years of investigation the working group found that labs following proper procedures achieved acceptable results.

Selavka and a partner presented their finding to the agency’s Drug Testing Advisory Board in 2004. They addressed the organization’s concerns, provided a long list of suggestions, and gave hair testing a thumbs-up. And then SAMSHA did nothing.

“The guidelines essentially got set on the shelf getting a tad dusty,” said Selavka.

It’s difficult to say exactly why the approval of hair testing stalled, as HHS doesn’t publish reasons for <I>not</I> going through with a rulemaking. But Selavka offered his own ideas. He said the science is not the problem – it’s the bureaucracy.

“It has less to do with realities [of testing], and more to do with changing a giant federal program,” he said.

Unlike alternative testing fluids such as saliva, which is being considered again by SAMSHA, hair is solid and heterogeneous. Selavka and others point out that while the federal lab infrastructure for fluids already is in place, a program for hair testing would be difficult and expensive, which is a potential reason to shelve the idea. 

As Rob Abbott of ATA put it, the bureaucracy may be invested in a process it has been using for a long time.

According to Selavka, hair testing has gotten better over the years. Labs have standardized their procedures, he said. And demand is rising, as can be seen in the trucking industry, which will presumably continue to drive quality up and cost down.

A fatal loophole

Hair analysis shows more drug use among drivers than urinalysis does, but carriers can’t do a whole lot with that information beyond rejecting applicants they have tested.

Because urinalysis is a federally accepted test, carriers can pass on test records to other companies. Hair-test records, in contrast, cannot be shared – a loophole that in at least one instance has proved fatal.

Since Schneider began doing pre-employment hair follicle drug screening in 2008, 935 applicants have failed to pass. Of those, 81 failed the urine test. That leaves 854 drivers who were able to apply to carriers that use only urinalysis.

One of Schneider’s rejects did exactly that and went on to cause a fatal accident driving a truck for a different company.

“It was the trainer of the particular driver that noticed the article in the paper” and recognized the driver, said Marsha Vande Hei, director of regulatory compliance at Schneider. “If the results would have been known to the carrier, he would not have been hired.”

According to Whiteside at J.B. Hunt, since 2006 when the company started hair testing, 2,724 drivers failed the hair test but passed the urine test. Whiteside strongly believes in the test, and is happy to keep unsafe drivers out of his company but he shares Schneider’s concern about keeping these drivers off the road.

Rob Moseley, a transportation attorney with the law firm Smith Moore Leatherwood, said a carrier would violate confidentiality laws if it shared hair test results to other potential employers. “You don’t have permission to release anything else” other than urinalysis results, he said.

So carriers’ hands are tied. Breaking silence over a potentially fatal issue could invite a lawsuit.

Legal Hurdles

The higher cost of hair testing is a bar to wider use, but that’s just one impediment. The ad-hoc nature of government rules present significant management issues.

The national landscape for employee drug screening is a patchwork quilt. According to the National Center for Drug Testing Information, there are more than 550 state statutes in existence for workplace drug testing. That makes implementing a test with no federal rules a legal tangle.

“It wasn’t a flip of the switch, it was state-by-state,” said Vande Hei, describing Schneider’s ramp-up to hair testing. She said this time-consuming process is too much for many carriers to handle. “A lot of times it gets put into the ‘too hard’ box.”

The bigger a carrier is, the more troublesome this can become. Some states, such as Iowa, do not allow for hair testing at all, as the legal definition of “sample” does not include hair.

The rules are applied based on where a driver works, not where he lives, which simplifies things a little bit. But if a carrier has terminals in locations with different rules, designing a coherent company policy becomes an issue. Vande Hei said Schneider had to hire a labor attorney to write its policy.

Because of all that, Vande Hei said it took a long time to implement a hair-testing regimen. That’s time and cost that many carriers may not have, even if they want the benefits that hair testing offers.

“Once you walk outside the comfort [zone] of the regulations, the standard DOT testing, you’re in uncharted waters,” said attorney Rob Moseley.

And that’s largely where hair testing stands today. In the absence of federal regulations, the decision to screen employees’ hair is up to the company, implemented case-by-case.

It may be that the only way to spur the Department of Health and Human Services, and by extension the Department of Transportation, to action will be an act of law by Congress, said Abbott of ATA.

There’s no evidence of congressional interest in such an initiative right now, but Abbott said he would not be surprised to see ATA press for it in the future. The association’s objective would not be to require carriers to use hair testing but to make hair an accepted specimen and let carriers to share test results.

“An increasing number of our members are adopting hair testing as part of their screening protocols, and an increasing body of evidence is becoming available showing us the benefits of hair testing,” he said.


  1. 1. Gabe [ August 22, 2013 @ 02:16PM ]

    The assumption underlying this article (and the entire drug testing industry) is that people who consume drugs cause more accidents. This assumption is flawed, and there is no hard statistical evidence to back it up.

    You can run a simple thought experiment of your own, to see how flawed the system is. Say on a Friday night two drivers are partying. One gets superdrunk on liquor, and the other smokes marijuana. Next Tuesday they are subjected to drug testing. The alcoholic will pass and be considered a safe driver, while the guy who smoked a joint will be flagged as 'unsafe'. Do you think this is a valid testing system?

  2. 2. Mr. Jones [ September 18, 2013 @ 08:36AM ]

    Well Gabe, I dont know what state you live in but in Texas specifically in Houston we have a thousands of dont drink and drive signs, billboards and commercials that do a great job of inhibiting people from becoming drunk drivers ....SIKE!!

  3. 3. psychotrucker [ January 14, 2014 @ 04:14PM ]

    Do you really think a sign stops an alcoholic from from drinking and driving??? Can't believe you think a sign is doing a great job. Maybe it helps a little but not even close to great.

  4. 4. ijustdontgetit [ February 22, 2014 @ 10:00PM ]

    Alcohol is at very least 10, if not 100 times as physically debilitating as marijuana. I've tried both, way more than several times. I cannot roller blade drunk, I cannot make a foul shot drunk, I cannot play a musical instrument drunk, cannot have sex drunk (not very well), ... and the list goes on and on.
    Furthermore, it takes a lot less than 24 hours for the effects of either to not be impairing. This is especially true with marijuana.
    Isn't the real issue "impairment on the job"? A blood test should be the only legal test in a free society.

  5. 5. kelly [ March 15, 2014 @ 01:16AM ]

    this whole haiir testing is so wrong, so now your looking to see if a person has ever taken drugs, perscription or otherwise. it started out we dont want employees high at work. now its we dont want anyone who has ever taken anything. wat a invasion of privacy. who made u god. ther but by the grace of god go i..this war on drugs is our war against our nieghbors. i would rather b shot than b degraded again and again by my own people.

  6. 6. tom selic [ May 21, 2014 @ 12:38PM ]

    You know what I don't understand is that theses guys are concerned about what some one did in the past they say its a risk factor but who's to say they hire clean guy are gal and they start abusing a year down the line the test can tell the past but not the future Okay

  7. 7. jason [ September 23, 2014 @ 10:44PM ]

    kelly the hair test goes back 90 days. It does not go back to when you were a teenager and smoked weed a few times.

  8. 8. ann [ October 28, 2014 @ 05:22AM ]

    I do have to wonder if there is an ulterior motive for the government to insist on intrusive testing. Once the American population becomes 'comfortable' and accepts this intrusion by our government then whats next in the loss of our freedoms? How many times will he American ppl. accept loss of their freedoms for 'safety'

  9. 9. Johnny Jag [ November 15, 2014 @ 06:17PM ]

    Ann has a good point. We are living in a surveillance state. Since 9/11 the people who think they know what's best for everybody have been granted extraordinary powers to observe and record the actions of individuals. They know where we go when we surf on the web, they know who we call and whose forums we belong to.

    All this is in the name of defeating terrorism, which I support, but really the motive is to form a society where getting high is equated with doing evil -- even if it's on your own time, in your home, and done responsibly, in the sense that while you are high you will not be operating machinery or making life-and-death decisions.

    Do you want to live in a society where everything you do is recorded and you can never under any circumstances get high?

    These people who know what's best for us exist in every society. In Soviet Russia it was the KGB. Here, it's the FBI. And recently, the NSA -- the spy agency that used to be prohibited from watching the activities of individual Americans but after 9/11 under the direction of G.W. Bush were given free rein.

    To my mind, this is not the American way! If you do your job responsibly and are an all-round good citizen, the state has no business prying into your private life.

  10. 10. jay77 [ January 27, 2015 @ 05:29PM ]

    Just like crengland, they go back 1 year,so what they should do is a urine sample when u first get employed,then how ever long they go back for the hair test do it from the time u took your hair test, if they go back 90 days, then 90 days from the time u passed your urine test, only way that hair test would be right in my eyes

  11. 11. jack m off [ January 31, 2015 @ 09:28PM ]

    jay77 I hear u screamin bro I have smoked and done lots of shit as I got older I pulled my head out of ass I quit smoke 7 mos ago now 20+years of gainful employment ithink trucking nice way to go in my last years a representative of CRENGLAND say screamin for drivers were turnin loadsdown I guess a simple hair test just cost them several vvhundreloads

  12. 12. Gus [ November 02, 2015 @ 10:14AM ]

    I have absolutely no problem with hair follicle testing. The company is investing in taking preventive measures and is further insulating itself from possible trouble down the road. As with many changes the last few years, insurance companies policies dictate what kind of risk the trucking companies are exposed to. If a driver is involved in an injury/fatality wreck, irregardless of whi is at fault, somewhere in the investigative process prior drug use will be a concern. So, stay clean and there won't be a problem.

  13. 13. Doug [ November 22, 2015 @ 01:42PM ]

    Of what business is it to them what we do on our free time??? Do privacy rights exist anymore?

  14. 14. Tony Muhammad [ December 18, 2015 @ 09:52AM ]

    I attend Scheider DriverTraining Academy Dec. 2nd to 6th 2014. Prior to arriving for training, I submitted to a hair sample drug test November, 25th. The results were not revealed to me until Dec. 3rd the second day of training and completing the applicant package which assuming I was officially being considered for hire.

    I was surprised my hair sample result tested positive. I'm no dummy if I was a drug abuser or substance abuser I would not have submitted to taking the test.

    Well, I was going to quit the training and go back home and figure out how I came into contact with opiates the past 90 day's, but my trainer and the Manager of Student services convince me to complete the Frist Phase because my driving skills are what the company is seeking in its drivers.

    On the day of graduation I was not presented a certificate while other grads received theirs (How embarrassing for me) instead I was asked to leave the class with my trainer who shared my hair sample tested positive. Of course, I had already informed him and management three day's prior of the MRO reported results.

    I felt set up by the company trainer's and management to suit Scheider Company - God-mentality - to record in my DAC file / Hire Right Solutions "I violated company Policy"

    This all occurred a year ago last week. Since then I have filed complaint after complaint with Federal and State workforce government agencies but the issue still remains a SPOT in my Hire Right / DAC file.

    The companies mention in this report that have instituted hair sample drug testing with new applicants are recognized by small and other major trucking firms as the vanguards of drug screening applicants in the industry.

    So it is assumed without question by trucking employers when they view DAC files of an applicant who was previously considered a short-term employee (6 days example in my case with Scheider National) in the category Reason for Termination - "Violated Company Policy" the the applicant failed

  15. 15. Tony Muhammad [ December 18, 2015 @ 10:08AM ]

    Sorry I did not complete my last paragraph..." It is industry wide assumed the applicant failed the hair sample drug test. The prospective employers in the trucking industry conclude the applicant is an illicit drug user or abuser. Case close! They will not consider you for employment with their company until 1 year elapses from when the record appeared in the file.


  16. 16. Thomas Moran [ January 13, 2016 @ 09:41AM ]

    There is a recent discussion of which I am part of on the new decrease from 50% to 25% - I think the driver comments valid - I mean can you take a second test? Are there false positives? Here is a link to the new changes discussion at hope moderators are ok with that:

  17. 17. 11 yrs experience [ July 26, 2016 @ 03:10AM ]

    hair tests are flawed, i've passed several hair test over the years, cuz i don't do drugs. however i recently allegedly showed pos 4 cocaine, which is false.i know drivers for same company that recently submitted hair/ua..that use drugs and alcohol passed both screens using shampoo, etc and are currently working for company, still using drugs and alcohol on job.....these labs have big companies convinced that hair test can't be cheated to protect revenue they're getting from trucking researching how i could've tested positive, i've found opposing research as to infallibility of hair testing by labs, schools, gov, seems the industries that rely on hair tests are willing to accept a degree of fallibility which appear to offer dubious preventative measures toward veritable safety for all....i'm ok with testing that reveals impairment or addiction on the job....the science and methods for testing for work place only impairment/addiction are currently ambiguous.the real problem with u/a is donor is not under observation. a person who cant stay clean to pass a u/a more than likely has a problem with test encounter numerous mitigating circumstances that more often identify contact not addiction or work place use....i never thought i had to worry about testing cuz i don't use drugs, until now, the system has flaws.....

  18. 18. Jason Daniels [ August 24, 2016 @ 03:43AM ]

    Ya but what about the alcoholic that takes a week from drinking just to train for you, after orientation he's back to drinking in your new truck.

  19. 19. Jason Daniels [ August 24, 2016 @ 03:47AM ]

    Statistics show alcoholics 100% more dangerous than a marijuana user

  20. 20. John Johnson [ September 08, 2016 @ 04:34AM ]

    It's stupid because their reasoning is basically "well if this person test positive for drug X, then how do we know they won't be high on drug X behind the wheel?". Where that logic fails is that if there were a way to test for alcohol up to 3 months prior (and I'd bet it's possible) then that same reasoning could be used, actually even easier given that alcohol is legal.
    Seems like a lot of these articles are just mindless. I read another one that said truck drivers accounted for something like 14% of highway accidents during a certain year(can't remember what year). The article in my opinion was insinuating "get these bad truck drivers off the road" while failing to mention how much time truck drivers spend driving on the highway versus your average person. It's like saying "Joe the pizza maker burns more pizzas per year than Suzie the accountant". Meanwhile let's also not take into account bad drivers(like people on their phones), who truck drivers also have more contact with. All I'm saying is can we look at things rationally and objectively?

  21. 21. Matthew Barich [ September 13, 2016 @ 09:52PM ]

    Alcohol is legal. I use to be a chemically dependent alcoholic driving down the road driving hazmat wagons. I wouldn't have failed a test at work but I sure as heck came close to having major major accidents when I would go through withdrawal while driving. Alcohol is legal.

  22. 22. J Moncada [ October 08, 2016 @ 01:24AM ]

    I just really can't believe how far are we letting other take our privacy. Hair test is just another way of discrimination but who am I to say that rightg.

  23. 23. ryan [ November 04, 2016 @ 11:44PM ]

    The only reason some of these companies are doing hair tests is cause they aint paying for it. The students are. Why do you think they pay their employees garbage. Their paying to have these hair tests done using your money. It doesnt take 30 days to withdraw from weed so what is the point of going back 6 months?

  24. 24. sudon't [ February 08, 2017 @ 03:29AM ]

    The vast majority of people who use drugs, like the vast majority of people who use alcohol, use them responsibly. It's simply a double-standard, rooted in racism and hysteria, a type of moral disapproval that continues to this day. What they're doing is weeding out some of the brightest and most creative people, who will avoid companies doing hair testing. The upside is, few companies can afford to do that, with England at the top of that list. No one in their right mind would go to work for them to begin with, and we know they're starved for drivers.
    The other issue is that, unlike with a DOT drug test, employers can do as they like with your DNA. This is the main reason I'll never submit to a company drug test of any sort. There is no transparency.


Comment On This Story

Comment: (Maximum 2000 characters)  
Leave this field empty:
* Please note that every comment is moderated.


We offer e-newsletters that deliver targeted news and information for the entire fleet industry.


ELDs and Telematics

sponsored by
sponsor logo

Scott Sutarik from Geotab will answer your questions and challenges

View All

Sleeper Cab Power

Steve Carlson from Xantrex will answer your questions and challenges

View All