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A “Hairy” Debate Over Driver Drug and Alcohol Testing

Under current commercial trucking industry procedures, the only permitted method of drug and alcohol testing is a urinalysis. Some employers are performing hair testing for their own use, but must also conduct a duplicative urinalysis to satisfy federal requirements. This could soon be changing.

The Drug Free Commercial Truck Driver Act of 2015 (S.806 and H.R. 1467) introduced approximately six months ago allows the U.S. Department of Transportation to recognize hair testing as a method of drug and alcohol testing. However, throughout August of 2015 quite the debate has arisen over the hair testing alternative.

On August 20, 2015, a number of transportation groups and key unions sent a letter encouraging House leaders to reject the bill, claiming hair testing is an “unsubstantiated method of testing” and “is racially biased.” The letter went on to explain “hair specimens can test positive for a drug that its donor was merely exposed to but never actually ingested,” and drug levels are found higher in darker color hair.

On August 24, 2015, Bill Graves, President of the American Trucking Association responded with a letter to Congress refuting the above claims. Graves explained that accredited hair testing labs use washing procedures, which are now standard in the industry, to remove external contaminations from samples. With regard to the alleged racial bias, Graves pointed to a research synthesis published by the Transportation Research Board. Though some research found slightly higher drug levels in darker color hair, none of the research found direct support for the alleged race bias. The publication also pointed out that “the apparent inconsistency in hair color may be explained by the fact that different ethnic groups have different patterns of drug use.”

The proponents of the bill encourage hair testing because of its longer detection period and difficulty for those being tested to beat. Where urinalysis can oftentimes only detect substance use for the past two to three days, hair testing can detect such use for the past 60 – 90 days. To support the efficiency hair testing would have over urinalysis, Graves referenced statistics from Schneider, one of the largest forhire trucking companies in the United States. “[Of] 2,066 driver applicants who had used drugs based on hair test results; only 182 of them had tested positive on urine tests…Hence, 1,884 drug users could have been driving for Schneider if they had not implemented a hair testing program for preemployment screening.”

The bill is still currently pending. Stay tuned for how this great debate shakes out.

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