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As more states legalize or decriminalize the use of marijuana, commercial fleet operators around the country are ramping up their reasonable suspicion training to manage the risk of drivers operating vehicles under the influence of the drug, experts say.
Thirty-six states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana in some form. However, it remains federally illegal and subject to U.S. Department of Transportation testing requirements for commercial driver’s license holders.
Data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse — which began collecting data on CDL license holders’ positive drug tests as of Jan. 6, 2020 — shows that of 80,000 failed alcohol and drug tests since then, more than half were due to positive results for marijuana metabolites.
“Right now, with the shortage of drivers … any time a driver tests positive for any substance, it’s a big blow,” said John Simms, Inverness, Illinois-based senior risk adviser at HNI Truck Group, an Acrisure LLC company.
The clearinghouse requires CDL drivers and their employers to report positive alcohol and drug tests and mandates that employers use the clearinghouse to identify whether drivers being considered for hire have had a drug or alcohol infraction in the past three years.
“It’s the cognitive functioning of the driver that we’re most concerned about,” said Ryan Pietzsch, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania-based program technical consultant for driver safety at the National Safety Council. “When you’re talking about commercial vehicles, CDL drivers, these vehicles are over 26,000 pounds. These are major destruction makers.”
While the majority of failed drug tests for substance abuse are preemployment tests, most failed alcohol tests are random, followed by tests due to reasonable suspicion of intoxication, according to 2020 clearinghouse data.
There have also been “dramatic increases” in incidents in which a driver is under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol, said Clair Stroer, program manager in the impairment practice at NSC.
Many fleets are “really ramping up their reasonable suspicion training for supervisors,” said Darren Beard, Kansas City, Missouri-based senior loss control consultant at Lockton Cos. LLC.
While CDL regulations require supervisors of fleets to receive 120 minutes of training on the symptoms of alcohol or controlled substance use, more companies are increasing efforts with the goal of enabling supervisors to identify potential signs of impairment both in person and over the phone, he said.
“It’s really to manage the risk; it’s not so much to find out if they were smoking marijuana three weeks ago,” Mr. Beard said, adding companies are “focusing on the impairment side of that to protect not only their liability but the motoring public.”
Shop supervisors can be key to identifying impairment. “When drivers aren’t driving, that’s the place they hang out,” Mr. Simms said. Management should “have weekly conversations about the drug and alcohol environment that is out there” and “make it a point to go have one-on-one conversations (with drivers).”
Fleet employers are also increasing their education about marijuana and making sure drivers understand that CBD, which is unregulated, can contain THC that could result in a positive drug test, he said.
“CBD products are often the culprit (behind positive marijuana tests) because the majority of drivers think it is OK to take those medications,” said Chris Eastly, Pittsburgh-based vice president and senior risk consultant at Hub International Ltd. He encourages companies to do more than just pass out the DOT mandatory drug and alcohol education information and hold “tailgate talks” to ensure drivers understand the policies.
And although some may assume that states with more liberal marijuana laws would see higher levels of drivers test positive for drugs, that isn’t the case, according to the clearinghouse. Texas reports the highest number of CDL drivers with positive drug tests, followed by California, Florida, Georgia and Illinois.
While Texas has a large population, it also has “probably one of the most restrictive marijuana programs,” Mr. Beard said. “I don’t necessarily think you can draw a conclusion from the data at this point, (but) when you look at the population of Colorado” which is 18th in positive drug tests and where recreational marijuana is legal “it’s nowhere near the proportion.”
The concern is different for fleets that don’t require drivers to have a CDL and are therefore not subject to the drug testing regulations under federal law. Identifying marijuana use is even more important for such companies because of how widespread it is, Mr. Beard said.
“A lot of our non-regulated fleet employers are having to make hard decisions about either eliminating marijuana from their drug-free testing program or eliminating drug testing altogether just to get candidates through the door,” he said.
Trucking fleet operators, faced with an especially tight labor market, are looking at ways to retain qualified drivers who may have failed a drug test, experts say.
“Finding qualified drivers is No. 1 — it has always been a struggle and continues to be today,” said Darren Beard, Kansas City, Missouri-based senior loss control consultant at Lockton Cos. LLC. According to the American Trucking Association, the turnover rate for drivers at large carriers averaged 90% in 2020.
In an attempt to retain good drivers who may have failed a drug test, some fleets are creating self-admittance policies to allow drivers to own up to problems and seek help through proper channels without negative implications, Mr. Beard said.
“Not every employer necessarily had that in their program before, but at this point, with such a shortage of CDL drivers, folks are taking a look at it,” he said.
Some companies are considering bolstering their employee assistance programs or providing access to substance abuse professionals to retain good drivers with positive test results, said Nina French, president of employer and law enforcement solutions at Oakland, California-based biotech company Hound Labs Inc., which has developed technology to detect marijuana impairment.
While most fleets typically “hand the driver some referral information” while terminating their employment if they test positive for drugs or alcohol, the scarcity of drivers may prompt them to consider alternatives, said Chris Eastly, Pittsburgh-based vice president and senior risk consultant at Hub International Ltd.
“Perhaps (the fleet company) would be better off to rehabilitate and keep someone on the payroll and behind the wheel,” he said.
A tough insurance market for commercial trucking companies isn’t likely to change direction soon as insurers continue to raise rates, shrink limits and restrict capacity for a risk that has a history of generating big claims.