The old stereotype of free-wheeling rebel truck drivers crisscrossing the country, running hard for days on end without sleep by snorting cocaine and staying hopped up on amphetamines, is thankfully now pretty much only a figment of Hollywood imaginations.
Since mandatory random drug testing of all commercial driver license holders became the law the problem of impaired truckers has dramatically diminished. The Department of Transportation estimates that fewer than 2% of truck drivers test positive each year for controlled substances in random federal tests. Government statistics prove truck drivers are the safest drivers on the road, with much lower rates of drug use than the general population.
However, a recent study shows those figures may be distorted. The LexisNexis Risk Solutions 2011 Commercial Driver Safety Report used driver qualification file statistics that included real-time data capture from trucking customers using its services between May 2010 and July 2011.
Drug test trending results they found were disturbing: Cocaine usage increased by seven percentage points, amphetamine usage increased by two percentage points and opiate usage also demonstrated a slight increase.
The biggest problem is truckers who are cheating to pass urine drug and alcohol tests.
In 2008, undercover investigators with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, used bogus truck driver’s licenses to gain access to 24 drug-testing sites.
They found that 75% “failed to restrict access to items that could be used to adulterate or dilute the [urine] specimen, meaning that running water, soap, or air freshener was available in the bathroom during the test.”
GAO investigators also bought drug-masking products over the internet and were able to mix them with real specimens at the drug-testing sites “without being caught by site collectors,” the agency said in its report.
Drug-screening labs never realized that there was a problem. “Every drug masking product went undetected by the drug screening labs,” the report said.
GAO says crucial improvements to trucker drug testing are necessary, as users have been able to easily subvert tests and the lack of a nationwide database of drug-testing information has made it easy for drivers who fail tests to find new jobs.
“Although FMCSA and its state partners review thousands of carriers each year, these reviews touch about 2% of the industry,” the report stated. “As a result, carriers have limited incentives to follow the regulations. Factors contributing to failures to detect drug use include the ease of subverting the urine test, either because collection sites are not following protocols or because drivers are using products that are widely available to adulterate or substitute urine specimens.”
To remedy the situation, the trucking industry is pushing for stricter drug testing policies that would include the use of alternative specimen testing methods, such as hair follicle testing, to remove chronic drug users from the truck driver pool.
Several trucking companies have instituted hair testing for drug use among drivers in addition to urine tests required by the DOT, including Schneider National, JB Hunt, Gordon Trucking, Roehl and C.R. England.
One of the first fleets in the country to try hair drug tests, JB Hunt, found when it began hair testing in 2008 that while only 1.56% of its drivers failed urine tests, 8.97% failed hair tests.
During a pilot test of a hair drug-screening program in 2011, C.R. England said both urine and hair samples were collected from driver applicants and, after a year of research, the company was convinced that hair testing was a superior methodology for pre-employment drug screening compared to urine testing alone.
England said that out of 2,000 candidates in the pilot study, over 150 tested positive who otherwise would have passed the current urine test mandated by DOT. In total, over 11% of the applicants tested positive with hair testing in C.R. England’s drug-screening pilot study, versus 2.8% testing positive via DOT urine testing alone.
In the last four years, some 38,000 Schneider National applicants had their hair tested for evidence of drug use. Of those, 1,411 failed the test. Yet more than 90% of those who failed were able to pass a urine test, the government-mandated industry standard.
While hair follicle testing is more expensive it can detect illegal drug use over a longer period of time, proponents claim. Each half inch of head hair provides a 30-day history of drug use, while urine tests provide a two- to three-day history in most cases.
However, the legalities of hair testing are subject to debate. Schneider National executives say the government currently allows hair testing but doesn’t officially recognize it.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says it’s studying testing methods beyond urine testing, but it has said testing hair and other specimens raise significant issues that may take more time to resolve.
However, even without a federal stamp of approval, hair testing has become more popular with trucking companies because it’s more difficult to cheat. And it may even keep chronic drug users out of the industry.
“It’s a deterrent,” said John Spiros, vice president of safety and claims management at Roehl, which began testing hair in 2011. “When people know that you’re doing hair-follicle testing, a lot of them won’t even apply.”
The push toward using hair drug tests has picked up steam. On May 14 the National Transportation Safety Board issued a recommendation to allow motor carriers to collect hair samples for Department of Transportation required drug testing in conjunction with the currently mandated urine testing process.
NTSB’s recommendations come a day after ATA President and CEO Bill Graves wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood again urging him to move forward on a process to allow motor carriers to collect hair samples for DOT-required drug testing.
“ATA knows for a fact that thousands of truck drivers who have failed hair tests . . . have obtained driving positions with other carriers because they were able to pass DOT-authorized urine tests,” Graves wrote in a May 13 letter.
“All we are asking is for DOT to allow this industry to use the best available tools under the DOT-mandated drug and alcohol testing program to make sure our roads are safe for all motorists,” Graves said.
ATA has also came out in support of a bill, H.R. 6641, introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) in December that would require the DOT to conduct a pilot program to evaluate the use of hair samples to test commercial drivers for illicit drug use.
“Hair testing, which research and experience shows can be much more effective than current, conventional sampling and testing methods, is the next logical step in this process and we thank Congressman Ribble for introducing this important legislation,” said ATA’s Graves. “ATA also thanks Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) for signing on as an original cosponsor.”
Fleets and drivers not familiar with hair testing may have questions about the process. Following answers to common questions about hair drug tests provided by Omega Laboratories that operates a state-of-the art drug testing facility offering hair testing for drugs. Omega has over 6,000 clients worldwide and services businesses, government organizations and educational institutions.
1. What is hair drug testing?
Since hair growth is fed by the bloodstream, the ingestion of drugs of abuse is revealed by analyzing a small sample of hair. Our testing method measures the drug molecules embedded inside the hair shaft, eliminating external contamination as a source of a positive test result. Hair testing results cannot be significantly altered with shampoos or other external chemicals.
2. What drugs can Omega test for with hair?
Cocaine, marijuana, opiates (Codeine, Morphine & 6-MAM Heroin Metabolite), Amphetamine, (Methamphetamine & Ecstasy), and phencyclidine (PCP). These five drug classes are mandated for testing by the Federal Government. Omega Laboratories also offers an Extended Opiates panel, which can be added to a standard test, and includes Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Hydromorphone.
3. What time period does hair testing cover?
For head hair, Omega?s standard window of detection is 90 days. However, longer and shorter timeframes are possible. Body hair samples are noted as an approximately 12 month timeframe.
4. How soon after use can a drug be detected in hair?
It takes approximately 7-10 days from the time of drug use for the effected hair to grow above the scalp. Body hair growth rates are generally slower and cannot be utilized to determine a specific timeframe of drug use.
5. How does hair testing compare to urinalysis?
The primary differences are
1) wider window of detection
2) inability to tamper with the test
Cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates and PCP are rapidly excreted and usually undetectable in urine 72 hours after use. The detection period for hair is limited only by the length of the hair sample and is approximately 90 days for a standard test.
Additional advantages include non-intrusive collection procedures.
The combination of an increased window of detection and resistance to evasion makes Hair Testing far more effective than urinalysis in effectively identifying drug users.
6. How effective is hair testing in detecting drug users?
In side-by-side comparison studies with urinalysis, hair drug testing has uncovered significantly more drug use. In two independent studies hair drug testing uncovered 4 to 8 times as many drug users as urinalysis.
7. How much hair is needed?
A standard test with GC/MS, GC/MS/MS or LC/MS/MS confirmation requires 60+ milligrams of hair or approximately 90 to 120 strands. The thickness of different types of head hair (thick coarse vs. thinning fine) is the reason for this variation.
8. Can tests be run on people with little or no hair?
Hair can be collected from several head locations and combined to obtain the required amount of hair. In addition, body hair may be used as a substitute to head hair. In the rare case where no hair is collectable, oral fluid or urine testing may be utilized.
9. Can hair be affected by cross-reacting substances such as over-the-counter medications?
Enzyme-immunoassay antibodies (EIA), similar to those used to test urine, are used for the initial screening test for drugs of abuse in hair; therefore the potential for substances such as over-the-counter medications to cause a false positive screening result does exist. To eliminate the possibility of reporting a false-positive due to cross-reactivity, Omega confirms all positive results by GC/MS, GC/MS/MS or LC/MS/MS.
10. What methodology do you employ?
Hair samples are first screened in our laboratory using enzyme immunoassay (EIA) technology, which has been proven reliable for routine drug testing. Any samples that test positive in the screening process are then subjected to GC/MS, GC/MS/MC, or LC/MS/MS confirmation testing. Tandem “MS”, as it is called, provides the most sensitive fingerprint of the drug target available.
11. How does Omega Laboratories establish its cut-off levels?
Omega follows the cut-off levels generally accepted industry-wide. These levels are based in part by minimum detection levels for GC/MS, GC/MS/MS or LC/MS/MS confirmation.
12. What is the turnaround time?
Samples received by Omega Laboratories will report out within 1-3 business days.
13. Is Omega Laboratories’ internal chain-of-custody comparable to a urinalysis laboratory test procedure?
Omega’s internal chain-of-custody is modeled after Federal guidelines (SAMHSA) as well as other accredited agencies (CAP).
14. How long are test reports kept on file?
Test reports are retained for a period of two years or as mandated by law.
15. What is done with the excess hair that is not tested?
The hair not used from the time period being tested (i.e. three months equals 3.9 cm) is stored in the chain-of-custody sample acquisition pouch. Hair is stored for a one year period.
16. What experience does Omega Laboratories have providing Expert Witness Testimony?
Omega Laboratories’ forensic experts have qualified as expert witnesses in 29 states for over 250 civil, criminal, and Superior Court trials.
17. Can a hair test be beaten?
At this time there are no known successful adulterants for hair tests. Since hair tests analyze the drugs inside the hair shaft, external contaminants/chemicals have no effect.
18. How is the data reported?
As with all Omega testing, results are reported to the designated party and Medical Review Officer, if appropriate. This may be done via the Omega Extranet, fax or electronic data exchange of test results.
19. Does hair color effect results?
Hair color is determined by the amount of melanin in the hair. It has been shown experimentally, through actual hair samples, as well as determined in court that hair color has no significant impact on results.
20. How fast does head hair grow?
Studies indicate that head hair grows on the average approximately 1/2 inch per month.
21. What is the shortest time period that can be accurately evaluated?
The minimum time period is approximately two weeks (1/4 inch). Body hair can be used if head hair is too short for a test. If body hair is used the timeframe represented by the test is approximately one year, due to different growth patterns in body hair.
22. Does body hair give the same type of results as head hair?
Yes, body hair can be used to test for the five standard drug classes, though body hair growth patterns are different than head hair. Most body hair is replaced within approximately one year. This means a test done with body hair will be reported as drug usage during approximately a one year timeframe.
23. Can hair collected from a brush be used?
Yes, but the test will be reported as having an “anonymous” donor. We cannot attribute the sample to any specific person and we cannot determine the timeframe of the test, so the test result is not legally defensible.
24. Can external exposure to drugs (marijuana smoke, crack smoke, etc.) have an effect on the hair test results?
To rule out the possibility of external contamination, Omega?s testing (where appropriate) looks for both the parent & metabolite (bi-product) of drug usage. For marijuana analysis, Omega detects only the metabolite (THC-COOH). This metabolite is only produced by the body and cannot be an environmental contaminant.
25. What other drugs are available to be tested in hair analysis?
Currently, nicotine, methadone, simple benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants assays and mescaline have been detected in hair. However, many details such as cutoff levels and dose response relationships have not yet been established for these compounds. These assays are in the Research and Development process.