Occupational drug use is of concern in any profession, but when the employees are driving heavy vehicles for long distances and at high speed, even a momentary lapse in concentration could lead to the most serious of consequences – for the driver, their employers, and most importantly, other road users.
Professional drivers are required to maintain a state of constant alertness, practicing second-by-second responsiveness to changing road conditions. Unfortunately, the conflicting expectations of haulage companies and fleet employers often undermine that concentration. Corporate targets, including speed and delivery, often leave individual drivers under increased performance pressure.
All too often, drivers resort to drug use as a means of getting the job done - from abusing alcohol and marijuana during a rest break, to taking amphetamines and psychoactive substances to help them stay awake.
So: what issues do law enforcement professionals and employers around the world face in dealing with this?
In Australia, where long-distance trucking is the major means of freight transportation, driver fatigue is the catalyst for many an occupational drug problem. During just one long weekend in 2015, Victoria Police found that 1 in 14 truck drivers randomly stopped by police tested positive for illicit drugs.
Random drug testing (RDT) policies are rolled out across the country, but as advice is both interpreted and implemented on a state-by-state basis, there is still some confusion between magistrates and barristers as to what constitutes ‘under the influence’ for different drivers in different areas.
Greg Barns, a spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance calls for the government to issue “accurate and scientifically robust information about how to comply with the laws”.
South America is almost synonymous with drug use among professional drivers. There is certainly an element of truth there: Brazil is the global capital of road traffic accidents, and, further to that, associated with drug use in general.
In 2016 the Brazilian government introduced a compulsory toxicological exam for drivers. This new law meant that long distance drivers had to take a hair drug and alcohol test every two and a half years to be able to renew their Class A, B or C license. The driver was responsible for paying for the $100 test themselves.
Francisco Garonce the Minister for Transport from the Brazilian Federal Government, spoke at the Society of Hair Testing’s Scientific Meeting in Cardiff (hosted by Cansford Labs) about the results this law has delivered so far.
Talking trucking: Brazilian Minister for Transport, Francisco Garronce, talks about the hair testing programme in Brazil at the recent Socirty of Hair Testing Conference
12.3 million of the country’s 70 million drivers are truck and bus drivers, and before they introduced the compulsory test, 10% of drivers tested positive for workplace drug tests. In the first year of testing, where they tested 1,386,597 people, the positive rate was just 1.5% - 20,806 people.
Francisco puts the success down to a few factors. Firstly, because the drivers are responsible for the payment, they are more likely to risk getting caught. Hair testing, of course, gives a longer window of detection than blood or urine, so a driver will be extra careful about drug intake.
The second reason is the sheer size of the operation. The government has installed 8000 testing hubs across the country, and enlisted the help of nine hair testing laboratories, so no matter where the driver is based - from Sao Paolo to the rainforest - there is a way for them to get tested.
The third reason is the amount of drivers who simply refused to renew their professional licenses. Hair tests are only compulsory for long distance drivers, after all. The cynic may suggest that these drivers may well be back on the road as taxi or delivery drivers in smaller vehicles. Not for long. The next steps for the Brazilian government, according to Francisco, are to extend the test to motorcyclists, and finally to the entire population.
An experiment of this size has never been conducted before, and while the scheme is not without critics, the long term effects on road safety will be fascinating.
If early results are anything to go by, the push marks a huge leap forward in a country-wide initiative to combat this significant problem. One thing is for sure, the push is likely to spark a much wider global conversation about compulsory drug testing for drivers - professional or otherwise.
Europe: a cohesive strategy needed?
Throughout Europe, a host of unofficial bodies (including the European Workplace Drug Testing Society and the European Transport Safety Council) provide guidance on occupational health and safety for professional drivers. However, there is currently no overarching EU-wide policy on the matter, with different countries practicing different methods of both prevention and enforcement.
In part, this is due to the differing scope of the problem from country to country. According to the WHO’s 2015 ‘Global status report on road safety’, Russia has one of the lowest road safety records in the region, whilst Denmark - despite the fact that, according to the WHO, 8.1% of its male population have an alcohol use disorder - has one of the highest.
Some countries in Europe have no mandate at all for workplace drug testing. Others, including Germany, routinely carry out pre-employment drug tests - although employers are required to demonstrate reasonable suspicion for in-employment testing to be legally accepted.
Meanwhile, France takes a tough and indiscriminate roadside approach to on-the-spot drug drug testing, following studies that showed drivers - both professional and nonprofessional - using amphetamines increase their risk of a crash by 7.6 times.
Closer to home in Ireland, the Ministry for Transport announced in April 2017 an update to their Road Traffic Act 2016 whereby Gardaí have the powers to stop and test anyone they believe to be under the influence of drugs.
What about the picture Stateside?
While generally associated with good driving standards, one study showed the US had the highest frequency of positive drug and alcohol tests amongst long-distance drivers worldwide, at 12.5%.
During Obama’s administration, the US established a national database listing truck drivers who have failed or refused tests, making it easier for employers to conduct background checks on new hires. The carriers and haulage companies were overwhelmingly in support of this policy, though it created significant division in the trucking community. The database’s future is unclear, given the Trump administration’s allegiance to this working group.
Earlier this year, six major trucking companies sought Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) approval to use hair analysis instead of urine testing as part of their pre-employment screening process of truck drivers. The group said data “demonstrates that hair analysis is a more reliable and comprehensive basis for ensuring detection of controlled substance use.
The approval has yet to be granted, but the case could be a watershed moment for hair drug and alcohol testing in the US, where truck drivers currently are required to undergo mandatory urine testing under FMCSA’s federal regulation.
Meanwhile, at home...
Here in the UK, our roads are amongst the safest in the world - but this doesn’t mean the UK driving industry is without its fair share of drug and alcohol-related problems. A survey conducted by Fleet News UK showed that 7% of respondents admitted to driving at least once a month having taken drugs. Some testing firms have estimated that an average of 1 in 3 lorry drivers test positive in random drugs samplings.
Although the DVLA is clear that drivers must not get behind the wheel in the case of either a one-time or long-term substance misuse problem, methods of enforcement vary. Unlike Germany, the Department of Transportation allows employers of commercial truck drivers to test for drugs both before employment and randomly throughout the year, although there is currently no legal requirement to do so.
The lack of globally comparable statistics, combined with the increasing prevalence of drug-driving across the world and an ever-changing landscape of legality (the UK, for example, introduced new driving limits for prescription drugs such as codeine in 2015), means the topic is likely to be controversial for some time.
Ultimately, anyone who engages employees in safety-critical positions has a duty of care to the general public to ensure they are taking steps to prevent and combat this serious problem. While urine and oral fluid testing can provide a snapshot of drug use, hair testing can build a clear, long term picture of alcohol and drug consumption - one of the reasons the Brazilian government has gone that route with their own drug testing.
A longer picture allows employers not only to avoid potentially dangerous drivers taking to the roads, but also offer help, support and rehabilitation for drivers with drug and alcohol problems beyond recreational use. It’s a win/win for all.
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