James F. Mahoney, Attorney

Drugged-Driving in the Motor Carrier Industry

If our safety management programs are found deficient after a
tragedy, we will pay in more ways than one

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Don’t drink and drive. That much we know.

But there's no similar message when it comes to drugs, legal or otherwise. Putting aside what we screen for in pre-employment and random testing under the FMCSR's, we have no real day-to-day information on our CMV drivers' medicated conditions. We don't run MVRs that often, nor can we.

A recent study estimates that somewhat more than 15% of all drivers on the road on weekends may test positive for behavior-modifying drugs.

The federal government, however, wants to reduce drugged-driving accidents by 10 percent over the next five years. How that gets done in reality is not as easy to say.

How do you control your CMV drivers and keep them from getting behind the wheel when they have legally prescribed drugs that may impair their ability to drive, but yet your driver doesn't realize it, or he doesn't want to realize it and lose income?

You don't. Doctors prescribe all the time without strongly advising their patients against driving. In fact it's a cliché for TV announcers to say, "If you are taking XYZ, don't operate heavy machinery."

There is no reliable data on how many drivers are impaired by prescription drugs, but law enforcement officials say the problem is growing so quickly that states are putting hundreds of police officers through special training to spot signs of drug impairment.

The prevalence of drug-impaired driving is unknown, since many states combine the arrest data with that for drunken driving. The most recent study screened about 6,000 nighttime drivers (and some Friday afternoon drivers) and found that 16.3 percent tested positive for legal or illegal drugs. That's significant, but...

The tests could not determine which drivers were impaired.

I was recently involved as defense counsel in a case involving life-changing injuries to a pedestrian in which the involved CMV driver had a kit bag full of prescription and non-prescription drugs. Half of these are not tested in post-accident screens under FMCSA regs, but yet some quick research revealed the contra-indications and warnings on behavior modification.

As to whether there was a connection to the cause of that particular accident, I will never know.

Very similar to "fatigue-related" crashes in which the sole evidence of fatigue being a cause of the accident is simply the driver's hours of service records, which really prove nothing, we have no scientific basis to rule in or out the potential effects of drugs on CMV drivers.

This is all very challenging to motor carriers and their safety programs. Perhaps greater vigilance in randoms and more frequent review of MVRs are worthy of consideration. If our safety management programs are found deficient after a tragedy, we will pay in more ways than one. Some new and innovative safety management programs are on the market and can help protect against disastrous losses and consequences.