DOT drug-test failure rate increasing and House Democrats making recommendations for DOT to fix
Written By Lucas Kibby
The Washington Post recently reported that “as the opioid crisis has mushroomed into a national epidemic, the number of truck and bus drivers, commercial pilots, railroad operators and pipeline workers who failed federal drug tests has jumped by 77 percent since 2006, federal data shows.”
As we know, companies with workers who hold “safety sensitive” jobs under the Department of Transportation are required to test at least 25 percent of their workforce each year. Other industries require more regular and stringent testing.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and two other administration officials, Rep. Peter DeFazio, Ore., the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee, wrote that “DOT is effectively carrying out drug and alcohol testing requirements … but there are significant gaps … that should be addressed.”
According to the Washington Post, investigators have found drug use to be a factor in several other high-profile transportation accidents.
- When a container ship collided with a bridge and spilled 53,500 gallons of fuel into San Francisco Bay in 2007, the National Transportation Safety Board found the harbor pilot had taken high doses of three opioids and several other prescription medicines.
- The driver of a tractor-trailers that collided with a bus in Oklahoma, killing four softball team members in 2014, was found by the NTSB to have been high on synthetic cannabinoid.
- Another tractor-trailer driver, this one in Tennessee in 2015, struck eight vehicles, killing six people. He tested positive for amphetamines.
- A hot-air balloon operator who died in Texas, along with 15 passengers, in 2016 tested positive for several drugs, including Valium, oxycodone and a synthetic narcotic pain medication.
- When an Amtrak train outside of Philadelphia killed two members of a crew working on the rail bed, the engineer tested positive for marijuana, and the two dead workers were found to have a variety of drugs in their systems.
The number of failed drug tests by railroad workers involved in fatal wrecks in 2016 alone was three times higher than a decade ago, and the highest number since the Federal Railroad Administration began keeping records in 1987.
The DOT 2016 drug testing report of 5.5 million lab-reported random DOT tests was the highest overall failure level since at least 2009, including year over year increases in three of five drug categories.
Why are the numbers going up?
“That’s a very good question,” said Abigail Potter, manager of safety and occupational health policy for American Trucking Associations, in a recent Transport Topics article. “I understand why marijuana might be higher because of the legalization that’s going on across the country and people not realizing that they can’t use marijuana when they’re a driver with a commercial driver license.”
The report by House Democratic staff members makes 15 recommendations. Some of these recommendations include:
- That the broad range of testing done by the FRA, including blood tests in addition to urine sampling, be applied by the DOT to all crash investigations.
- The Federal Aviation Administration should finalize arrangements for testing at offshore maintenance facilities that host the planes of U.S. carriers.
- Creation of a single template for drug testing among all DOT and Health and Human Services agencies, and that it be expanded to include drugs not already covered by the testing protocols.
- That a “scientifically valid and legally defensible” means to test for marijuana impairment be developed for the federal testing program.
- That DOT provide regular public reports on the drug and alcohol testing program by each mode of transportation.
“There are significant gaps that should be addressed to mitigate risk and improve transportation safety,” DeFazio said. “I urge the Department to consider the findings and recommendation made in the report, to ensure the safety of our roads, rails, pipelines, navigable waters, and skies.”