The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse has released a new summary report showing that through August 2021, the number of positive drive drug tests has risen by around 13%.
The most commonly-found drugs in these tests were marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines, the majority of which being for marijuana. For all violations found by the FMCSA, 82% were for positive driver drug tests–a number that has reached 95,740 since the clearinghouse first went into effect in 2020.
Around 70,000 drivers are still in “prohibited driving status” following these positive tests, which has many industry experts worried that those drivers may leave trucking altogether and worsen the long-term driver shortage.
“The greater prevalence of drug testing violations is concerning, and jeopardizes the safety of our roadways,” said spokesman for American Trucking Associations, Sean McNally. “In light of states’ continuing liberalization of marijuana laws, we encourage the federal government to increase attention on research on marijuana impairment, develop a national enforceable impairment standard, and look at ways to develop appropriate levels of highway safety.”
A study on marijuana use and its relation to roadway injury and fatalities was conducted earlier this year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and found mixed results regarding whether or not marijuana use itself is causing more highway accidents following the continuing legalization of the drug.
“The estimated increases in injury and fatality rates after marijuana legalization are consistent with earlier studies but they were not always statistically significant, and the effects varied across states,” said the institute in its study. “However, this is an early look at the time trends, and researchers and policymakers need to continue monitoring the data. National, state, and local governments considering changes to their marijuana policies should be cautious, proceed slowly, and take note of the lessons learned from these initial experiences.”
However, the data found in this study has researchers still unclear on the relation between recreational marijuana usage and roadway crashes.
“Legalization of the recreational use of marijuana was associated with a statistically significant 6.6% increase in injury crash rates and a non-significant 2.3% increase in fatal crash rates,” the study continued. “In contrast, the subsequent onset of retail marijuana sales–three to 18 months later depending on the state–did not elicit additional substantial increases to injury or fatal crash rates.”
If the legalization of marijuana is causing more drivers to be taken off the roads, it will of course be frustrating to see such changes further exacerbate the current driver shortage. However, the focus here should be steadily on improving overall road safety.
“My take is that there is a driver shortage, and frankly a labor shortage, that we see in many sectors,” said Levinson and Stefani’s Ken Levinson. “We see it in local restaurants, we see it in law firms, and we see it in the trucking industry. But, when the stakes are so high, and when professional drivers are operating 80,000 pound vehicles that can cause such devastating harm, we can’t let safety measures slip.”
Buckling down on these safety measures entails more than just ensuring drivers avoid drug use while on the road, Levinson added.
“This includes ending any driving under the influence of drugs, not hiring unqualified drivers, and not lowering the age for commercial drivers,” he said. “I get that there is economic pressure, and I understand the labor shortages, but the consequences are just too high. There are certainly a lot of industries and businesses I can imagine where the stakes aren’t quite so high in terms of safety and loss where you could maybe lower the standards, but professional driving is not one of those industries.”
With much of the country’s economic wellbeing weighing heavily on the shoulders of truck drivers throughout the pandemic era, some industry experts wonder if that added pressure may be causing them to turn to drug use to work longer hours or stay alert more easily.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on drivers, and there are a lot of sick drivers, that are given a lot of mandates by trucking companies that almost encourage them to be unsafe, drive too many hours, and cut corners,” explained Levinson. “That’s why we need to be ever-so-diligent in making sure that trucking companies don’t skirt around safety regulations. It’s just that the consequences are so great.”