Feds target truck drivers who fail drug, alcohol tests

The Obama administration is moving forward with regulations it says would improve traffic safety by keeping dangerous truck and bus drivers off the road.

The new rules would make it easier to catch truck drivers who fail or refuse to take drug and alcohol tests, according to the Department of Transportation. They would establish a federal database of these drivers that trucking companies could check before hiring prospective employees and to keep tabs on current employees.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the division of the Transportation Department that crafted the regulation, announced Wednesday it has sent the proposed rules to the Federal Register and is expecting them to be published in the coming days. Before the rules go into effect, they will be open for public comment. 

“Safety is our highest priority, and we will continue to embrace new tools and opportunities that protect the travelers on our nation’s roads,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “[The] proposal will help ensure dangerous drivers stay off the road, while encouraging the employment of the many safe drivers who follow our drug and alcohol requirements.”

The new rules cleared a review from the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) two weeks ago, and this is the next step in the process. All economically significant regulations must go through OIRA before they are published in the Federal Register.

Truck drivers are already required to submit to random alcohol and drug tests, but the records haven’t been kept in a central database. So this new rule would help future employers access the information, FMCSA said. Prospective employees would have to give permission for the new company to search the database for them before they could be hired to drive.

Under the new rules, truck and bus companies, along with testing laboratories, would be required to track drivers who fail or refuse to take drug and alcohol tests, and report them to the FMCSA so they can be added to the database. They would also note in the database when a driver successfully completes a substance abuse program and is allowed to return to duty.

Trucking companies are required to look into prospective employees' driving histories by calling past employers. But without a federal database, drivers who have failed drug or alcohol tests can cover that up by leaving gaps in their resumes and not telling the new company about all of the places where they used to work, said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy at American Trucking Associations (ATA).

The association has pushed for the rule for more than a decade as a way to streamline the background check process for drivers and crack down on fraud, Abbott said.

Under the new rules, companies would be required to use the database to perform background checks on employees once a year, as well as on all new hires.

Currently, drivers cannot take drugs or drink alcohol within four hours of the time they begin driving. Drivers whose blood alcohol level tests at .04 or above are required to go into a treatment program before they are allowed to drive again.

Trucking companies are required to test all new hires, as well as conduct annual random testing of 10 percent of their current drivers for alcohol and 50 percent for drugs. Companies also must test drivers who have been involved in significant crashes. Government official also conduct random roadside inspections. 

According to the FMCSA, 2,095 drivers failed alcohol tests in 2013, down from 2,494 violations in 2012. While 1,240 drivers failed drug tests in 2013, up from 1,139 in 2012. But the failure rates remained below 1 percent of all drivers.

Abbott said the vast majority of drivers pass the tests.