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DOT to consider oral drug testing option for trucking

A new federal drug testing proposal aimed at saving the trucking industry time and money may prove less effective for cracking down on drivers who are habitual drug users, according to a regulatory expert.

The 120-page proposed rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation, scheduled for publication on Monday, would revise drug testing program procedures on the books since 1998 that require DOT-regulated industries to use only urine specimens for detecting drugs. Under the proposal, companies would be allowed to use oral fluid instead.

“The department believes that this proposed rule is needed because it makes several improvements in the integrity and effectiveness of an important safety program, as well as potentially reducing some costs to regulated parties,” DOT noted.

DOT listed several reasons for this belief, including enhanced flexibility, time and cost savings, and increased versatility in drug detection.

For example, giving employers the option of oral fluid testing provides them more flexibility in cases in which an employee is unable — for whatever reason — to provide a sufficient urine specimen. “The added flexibility will also benefit employees, who should be able to provide one of the specimen types, thereby facilitating the drug test required for their employment,” according to DOT.

Collecting an oral fluid sample can also require less time than collecting a urine sample, DOT points out, reducing time away from the workplace.

“Most urine collections take place in separate facilities dedicated to collections, requiring employees to travel from their workplace to those facilities and back. Their time away from their workplace is a cost to their employers. On the other hand, most oral fluid collections are likely to take place at or near the workplace, making this travel time and cost unnecessary.”

The tests themselves are less expensive as well. DOT estimated the cost of a urine test at $50, whereas the cost of an oral fluid test is $35. Based on an estimate of the number of companies transitioning from urine testing to oral testing, this represents a potential savings of $6.3 million the first year and $27 million in the fourth year (see table).

Year Costs Cost savings Net cost savings
1 $609,000 $6,300,000 $5,691,000
2 $957,000 $11,475,000 $10,518,000
3 $1,305,000 $11,475,000 $10,170,000
4 (and beyond) $2,001,000 $27,000,000 $24,999,000
Economic effects of DOT’s proposal oral fluid rule. Source: DOT

Allowing for oral fluid testing also gives employers more options depending on the reason for the test. In a reasonable suspicion/cause or post-accident test, for example, an oral fluid test may show the presence of an active drug, which may indicate recent use of the drug — which might not be detected in a urine drug test.

“An oral fluid drug test can detect marijuana use in the past 24 hours, while a urine drug test detects use ranging from 3-67 days prior to collection,” according to DOT. “Thus, oral fluid testing may give employers more interpretative insight into recent drug use.”

Potential risks

P. Sean Garney, co-director at Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, agreed that allowing oral fluid testing as an option could make drug testing easier, less costly and less invasive.

“In many cases it will help reduce ‘cheating’ because it is, by nature, directly observed,” Garney told FreightWaves. “That’s why many in the industry have long been calling for it.”

Garney also agreed that oral testing potentially would improve post-crash and reasonable suspicion testing, which seek to discover if a driver was more recently under the influence.

At the same time, however, Garney pointed out that the shorter detection window for oral fluid testing — 24 hours or less in the case of marijuana — makes it less effective than urine testing in identifying lifestyle drug users.

And because the proposal as written potentially allows for oral fluid for all testing situations, including preemployment screening and random testing, it “could conceivably provide a perverse incentive for carriers looking to reduce cost to adopt a testing regime that is less effective in identifying these lifestyle drug users the industry wants to avoid,” Garney warned.

“Oral fluid testing can be a big win for the industry, but it’s not a panacea. Ideally, carriers should be allowed to use hair testing for preemployment, oral fluid for post-crash, and reasonable suspicion and urine for random. But we’re a ways off from that.”

The public will have 30 days to comment on DOT’s proposal. 

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.