One challenge: A driver could complete the return-to-duty process but have to wait on the state licensing agency to flip the switch to allow driving again. - Photo: Quest Diagnostics

One challenge: A driver could complete the return-to-duty process but have to wait on the state licensing agency to flip the switch to allow driving again.

Photo: Quest Diagnostics

A new rule designed to keep commercial drivers who fail required drug and alcohol tests off the road is a win for trucking safety, but there are still challenges ahead.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s final rule, published in the Federal Register on Oct. 7, establishes requirements for state driver’s licensing agencies to use information from the federal Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse to deny or downgrade commercial driver’s licenses and learner’s permits for drivers with violations that mean they are prohibited from driving commercially. Compliance with the rule is required by Nov. 18, 2024.

“Everyone agrees that drug impaired truck drivers should be kept out of trucks and off our roadways, until they go through rehabilitation,” Lane Kidd, managing director of The Trucking Alliance, told HDT. “This final rule is a tremendous step to improve highway safety. For example, a state must now query the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse before renewing a commercial driver license, and additionally, FMCSA will notify a state whenever a driver fails a drug test, so the person’s license can be immediately downgraded.”

The Trucking Alliance, more formally the Alliance for Driver Safety & Security, is a safety coalition of freight and logistics companies and other business partners with the mission to advance safety reforms that can achieve zero large truck crash fatalities. It has advocated for the use of hair testing for drug use and expansion of the clearinghouse.

“The final loophole in the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse rule is closed, just as envisioned by industry and Congress. It is a good day for safety,” P. Sean Garney, co-director of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, told HDT. “FMCSA’s decision to require mandatory downgrades for prohibited drivers, despite opposition from some state licensing agencies, was the right one for highway safety.”

Carriers using employer notification systems will be the big winners, Garney said. They will be directly notified if a driver’s licensing status changes. This reduces the potential safety gap, from what could be almost a year, to no more than two months.  

“While this [rule] is an important win for trucking, it is not without challenges,” he noted. “Because it could take up to 60 days for the state to process the downgrade, it is conceivable, perhaps even likely, that a driver will complete the return-to-duty process but will have to wait on the state licensing agency to flip the switch to allow driving again. This will be particularly prevalent in states with driver notification requirements and may lead to fewer drivers returning to the industry (currently at 20% of drivers with a violation).”

The next big question, Garney said, is whether states will be able to build they technology systems they need to be compliant.

“Their track record isn’t great, but I’m hopeful they’ll see the obvious benefit and work to get systems in place early. They have been given three years to do it.”

Key Things to Know About the New Clearinghouse Rule

Garney outlined some of the key provisions of the new rule:

  • A state is prohibited from issuing, upgrading, or transferring a commercial driver’s license or commercial learner’s permit to any driver with a violation in the Clearinghouse. This includes renewal of the HazMat endorsement. States will access this data either through CDLIS or via a web services type solution. (CDLIS, the Commercial Driver’s License Information System, is a nationwide computer system that enables state driver licensing agencies to ensure that each commercial driver has only one driver’s license and one complete driver record.)
  • States are also required to “downgrade” a CLP or CDL within 60 days of a violation being uploaded into the clearinghouse. This downgrade is the “minimum action state must take,” but they may also suspend, revoke or disqualify drivers, based on current state procedure. All these actions are acceptable and meet the definition of “downgrade.” At a minimum, states will change the licensing status from “Licensed” to “Eligible.” The licensing agencies will decide whether to require surrender of the CDL in these cases. 
  • States can get this information one of two ways. They can “pull” the information from the clearinghouse prior to performing a licensing action, or FMCSA pushes information to the SDLA whenever a driver from the state is newly prohibited. 
  • FMCSA is giving states wide latitude on how to note this prohibition on the MVR and whether the reason for the downgrade is listed. 
  • Drivers will be prohibited from operating until their CDL privileges are restored by the state, not when the take their first return to duty test. 
  • States are on the hook to get this done. Failing to do so risks losing MCSAP (Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program) funds. 
  • FMCSA will notify drivers their information has been sent to the state licensing agency and that a downgrade is eminent. 
  • The way actual knowledge violations are being handled is changing as well. If an employer has actual knowledge of a DUI (based on a conviction or some other document) it will be uploaded into the clearinghouse and the driver will be prohibited from operating a CMV until the RTD process is complete, regardless of whether the driver is ultimately convicted. It will stay on the driver’s record for five years or until the driver has completed the RTD process, whichever is later. If the driver is ultimately cited for a different offense, his or her record will be updated with the information, but the prohibition/information will stay. It will not be removed. 
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