Trucking is one of the most significant components of the U.S. economy. Composed of over 3.5 million truck drivers, the trucking population moves 10.5 billion tons of goods annually, accounting for over two-thirds of American freight. Driving a truck is no small feat, either. The average 18-wheeler weighs 35,000 pounds—and that’s before the addition of any cargo.
On top of being an integral part of the nation’s shipping industry, trucking can also be a matter of life and death. Because of the massive tonnage of 18-wheelers, collisions involving a commercial motor vehicle can be some of the most serious and deadly; the Texas Department of Transportation reported that 613 people died in truck accidents in 2019 in the state of Texas, and thousands more were seriously injured.
Who is Holding Trucking Companies Accountable?
Because of the immense risk trucks can bring to the roads, it’s imperative that truck drivers take every precaution to ensure they keep themselves and other drivers safe. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or the FMCSA, works to try to prevent truck accidents. One part of the FMCSA’s efforts is the utilization of the Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program, which is meant to measure the safety performance of truckers and trucking companies across the country. The CSA is responsible for gathering truck accident crash data as well as information charted during roadside inspections and then cross-analyzing it to inspect how companies can create a “culture of safety.”
A major part of the CSA’s safety initiative is keeping trucking companies accountable and ensuring that they are making sure their drivers are substance-free. A recent study, however, determined that hundreds of thousands of habitual drug users are slipping through the cracks, going unnoticed by the trucking companies that employ them and the country’s drug-screening system alike. Conducted by researchers at the University of Central Arkansas, the study estimates that if the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began utilizing hair follicle testing, nearly 300,000 currently-employed truck drivers would be fired for drug and alcohol use.
Urinalysis and Hair-Follicle Testing: A Comparison
The study was paid for by the Trucking Alliance, and conducted by two UCA professors, Doug Voss and Joe Cangelosi. The purpose of the study was to learn more about some of the causes of truck accidents in hopes of better preventing them in the future. Prior to conducting the study, Voss and Cangelosi noted that there was evidence that the existing urine-testing regimen may not be as effective as people assumed. Because urine tests are pre-scheduled, the results may be skewed; truck drivers can easily refrain from drug use for a few days prior to the test to ensure they pass, and then resume drug and alcohol usage once the test is over.
The report cites a study done years ago in which law enforcement agencies conducted unannounced urinalysis tests on drivers during port of entry inspections. Because the drivers were not aware of the tests in advance, they did not have time to prepare. Sure enough, 21% of the 822 samples tested came back positive for one or more substances, including alcohol, stimulants, and cannabinoids.
The report also sites another study, done by the Trucking Alliance. In it, the Trucking Alliance compared pass/fail rates of urine tests and hair follicle tests of 151,662 pre-employment truck driver applicants. They found that 8.5% of applicants either failed the hair follicle test or refused to take it entirely. Comparatively, just 0.6% of applicants failed or refused a urine test. When that 8.5% is applied to the current trucking population (roughly 3.5 million employees with a Commercial Driver’s License), that translates to nearly 300,000 drivers who would fail if given a hair follicle test.
While these numbers cannot directly be applied to current truck drivers as the applicant pool that was tested may not accurately represent the veteran trucker population, the study’s conductors note that there is “a high degree of similarity” between the sample taken by The Trucking Alliance and the existing pool of truck drivers nationwide.
Because of the discrepancy between the results of a urinalysis and a hair follicle test, several trucking companies have switched to hair drug tests in hopes of ensuring that drivers stay sober. Hair follicle testing is much more difficult to thwart than urine testing, because evidence towards the usage of substances can be found in a participant’s hair for months afterwards. This would allow trucking companies to hold their drivers accountable so that they can ensure they are doing their part to lower the number of truck accidents.
The Issues with Hair Follicle Tests
That said, replacing urine tests with hair follicle tests is not a perfect solution. In their report, Voss and Cangelosi also cited another study that was done by the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which was looking to determine whether or not there was a racial component to hair testing results. According to that study, a black applicant was more than twice as likely to fail the test than an Asian applicant. Critics of hair follicle testing argue that the differences in hair type and porousness can affect the results.
In addition to hair color and texture causing bias, other issues with hair follicle testing is the variance in speed of which peoples’ hair can grow; meaning that it may take longer for metabolites to appear in hair than urine depending on the participant. On the flip side, however, substances take longer to metabolize in hair, meaning that unlike urine tests where a participant could stop using for a few days to pass, the effects of substances can be seen in a person’s hair for a while after they stop using.
Regardless of which testing method a trucking company employs, it is extremely important for these corporations to do their best to mitigate the risk of commercial vehicle accidents in these situations. Hair testing, though imperfect, can deter lifestyle drug users from trying to become truck drivers, which would ideally lead to a decrease in the amount of truck accidents.