Drug use among truck drivers: Is it happening more than we know?

SEATTLE -- A new report claims about 300,000 truck drivers in the United States are using drugs and passing drug tests.

Meanwhile, the federal government, tasked with drug testing drivers, is still likely years away from a more comprehensive solution.

A study by The Trucking Alliance analyzed pre-employment drug test results for more than 150,000 truck driver applicants with active commercial driver licenses. The candidates were asked to take two drug tests, a urinalysis and a hair analysis.

According to the report, about 1 percent of trucking applicants failed urine tests, but nearly 9 percent either failed or refused to take a hair follicle test, which can detect drug use for much longer periods of time.

The Department of Transportation, however, only recognizes urinalysis. Based on this study's results, that means nine out of 10 drug users slip through the cracks, or about 300,000 drivers.

Cocaine, opioids and marijuana are the top three drugs that showed up in failed tests.

"They are very easily skirting the system," said Lane Kidd, managing director of The Trucking Alliance. "They're very easily able to either mask the results or just simply going off the drug for four or five days and by that time it's out of their system. And they're passing the drug test and then going back to their lifestyle once they get the job."

Trucking companies are required to do random testing each year, but it only reaches a small portion of drivers.

Kidd said only about five percent of trucking companies even use a hair follicle test in addition to the urinalysis. That's partly because it's more expensive and the federal government doesn't take it into consideration.

The government is in the process of building a database so all trucking companies can see which people with commercial drivers licenses have failed drug tests at other companies, but as it stands, hair test results are not included.

"He could fail the hair test and so the employer would say, 'I'm sorry, you don't qualify for a job here,' he could walk out the door, drive down the street, walk in another trucking company that only requires a urine test and get a job today," Kidd said. "That's what's occurring with thousands of truck drivers every year in this industry and we have a real subculture in the trucking industry of drug users who need to be taken out of their trucks and off the highways and let them go do something else."

As far as follicle testing goes, the wheels are moving slow at the federal level. Years ago, then-President Barack Obama asked the government to come up with comprehensive hair testing guidelines by 2016. To this day, that hasn't happened.

Some smaller trucking companies are pushing back against hair tests, however, arguing, in part, that urinalysis is sufficient.

Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a national group made up of many small trucking companies, said they have concerns about hair testing, including bias toward hair color and texture. A researcher said drugs could be more easily identifiable in people with darker hair.

They also argue there's a lack of evidence that hair testing results in fewer crashes and point to random testing in the industry as a safeguard that proves that drug use is not rampant.

However, as marijuana legalization ramps up across the country, some argue it's a reason for the federal government to turn the wheels a little faster on more comprehensive drug testing.

While some states allow recreational use, because the trucking industry is regulated by the federal government, drivers technically cannot have marijuana in their system. It's the same for pilots and ferry operators, among others, regardless of the state.

Washington State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis said the department has seen a 20 percent increase in all types of drivers under the influence of marijuana since 2015. He did not have specific numbers for commercial truck drivers.

He did say that WSP holds truckers to a very high standard, in part, because of the harm they can cause.

"With vehicles that large, you have much more capacity to do much greater harm," Loftis said. "Even a small vehicle can cause a tremendous accident and loss of life and destruction of property but a larger vehicle is just a magnitude of that vulnerability and that kind of danger."

Some lawmakers are concerned that hair testing would mean truck drivers could get punished for legally smoking marijuana off the clock and never driving impaired, since that type of test would pick up use within months.

Others, like Kidd, argue that as long as marijuana is illegal at the federal level, people who want to smoke should not be truck drivers.