Monday January 6, 2020 marked another milestone in the Federal government’s efforts to insure and improve safety in the transportation industry. On that date the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a part of the U. S. Department of Transportation which regulates Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) holders such as truck and bus drivers, implemented a secure online database or Clearinghouse for use by employers and owner-operators. Regulations now require employers of CDL drivers to query this database before hiring a driver in order to determine if the driver has had alcohol or other drug related safety concerns. The database will identify issues such as a failed drug screening test, or a refusal to take a screening as well as information about a driver’s past completion of a Department of Transportation mandated substance abuse follow-up testing plan and return-to-duty (RTD) processes. Besides employers, the Clearinghouse will give State drivers licensing agencies and law enforcement personnel information about professional drivers’ safety records.
The Clearinghouse will identify such drivers and make it harder for them to keep driving. Carriers’ insurance providers will certainly remind them of the need to comply with the mandated queries of new hires, further reducing employer’s risk of accidents due to substance misuse by CDL drivers. Much more information about the Clearinghouse is available at: https://clearinghouse.fmcsa.dot.gov/
The Clearinghouse is another step in Federal involvement in making the transportation industry safer for the American public and for the men and women working in the transportation industry. Congress recognized the need for a drug and alcohol free transportation industry a generation ago when in 1991 it passed the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act, requiring DOT agencies to implement drug and alcohol testing of safety-sensitive transportation employees- such as airline pilots and truck or bus drivers. Safety-sensitive employees are those that not only have responsibility for their own safety, but also are responsible for safety of the travelling public. Positive tests for illicit drugs or alcohol misuse trigger a rigorous assessment, treatment and follow-up testing process in order for the employee to return to duty in the transportation industry.
Since the early 1990s, FMCSA and its predecessor agency has defined drug and alcohol testing rules and regulations for employees who drive commercial trucks and buses that require a CDL. These regulations identify who is subject to testing, when they are tested and in what situations. The regulations also impose privacy protections and restrictions on employers and service agents against the use and release of sensitive drug and alcohol testing information. Overall such regulations facilitate safer roads while helping those in need get into substance abuse recovery if they wish to continue working in the industry.
There are good reasons for increased safety measures in transportation. Accidents between massive tracker-trailer rigs or commercial or school buses and passenger vehicles, motorcycles and pedestrians kill and injury thousands of Americans every year. Though the trucking and busing industry is vastly safer today than in the past due to government oversight, the industry’s focus on safe, drug-free workplaces and the evolving crash-avoidance technology in modern large trucks and buses, still there were 4,889 fatal crashes per year involving large trucks in a recent year according to FMCSA. Over 200 more per year involve passenger or school buses. In total they equate to around one-out-of-eight of all fatal crashes on America’s streets and highways. Another 100,000 injury-producing crashes occur annually involving large truck and buses, not including thousands of other accidents that damage property but spare human lives. Aside from the human toll, the financial impact on businesses whose live-blood is moving freight or passengers is enormous and growing.
Most deadly crashes involve large trucks and passenger vehicles and have common themes as to why they occur- though CDL driver intoxication is a relatively infrequent reason. Many times, professional drivers are not the faulty party. Passenger vehicle drivers contribute to accidents by frequently underestimating the braking ability of buses and large truckers that often weigh 30 times the weight of a typical SUV or passenger car. Add wet, slippery, foggy or snowy road conditions and the problem is worsened. Undoubtedly, working conditions for drivers contribute to accidents. Professional driver fatigue is a well-known risk factor for crashes. CDL drivers are permitted to navigate American’s stressful, overcrowded roadways for a long as 11 hours at a stretch. (Have you recently tried driving your personal vehicle for 11 hours straight without feeling tired and inattentive?) This issue of driver fatigue was exemplified in a much publicized accident in 2014. Then a sleepy Walmart truck driver who had been awake for 28 hours rear-ended a limo van on a New Jersey highway. The limo was carrying comedian Tracy Morgan and the crash seriously injured the comedian and killed one of his best friends. Most driver fatigue-related fatal accidents get much less public notice than the Morgan crash, but all are equally tragic and costly.
Will the Clearinghouse improve safety but have the unintended consequence of worsening the transporation industry’s struggle to retain safe, professional drivers? And to bring new drivers into the industry? Ask any human resource professional in the trucking or busing business and they will quickly tell you that this costly retention and recruitment issue is the number one challenge they face.
And it’s a not a new one- the trucking industry has struggled with a shortage of truck drivers for decades. During the Great Recession in 2008- 2010 the driver shortage was erased, but only because industry freight volumes plummeted with the economic slow-down, resulting in many fewer drivers being needed in a shrinking economy. However, as industry volumes began to recover, the driver shortage returned. The driver market continued to tighten, and the shortage skyrocketed to over 50,000 drivers by 2017. In 2018, the notoriously cyclical trucking industry suffered a greater shortage, largely due to increased industry freight volumes. The shortage eased slightly during 2019 as the industry maneuvered (with record numbers of carrier bankruptcies) through the oversupply of trucking capacity and slower economic growth and the effects of trade tariffs. As we enter a decade with a growing GDP, a stock market at record highs and unemployment at record lows, it’s estimated at over 60,000 drivers and growing.
Putting aside short-term economic factors, the industry is plagued by a demographic fact that ensures continuing and escalating labor problems- the aging of the existing driver population. Surveys by the American Trucking Association show that the average age in the over-the-road trucking segment of the industry is 46 years old. As the population ages, carriers are increasingly becoming aware that driver health issues are becoming more prevalent and costly- impacting competitiveness in a sometimes cut-throat industry. As aging drivers retire, the industry is faced with the challenge of recruiting more millennial drivers as well as more women and minorities. Sadly, these are groups that so far it has not had great success in attracting. Since about ¾ of America’s freight moved on our highways, the driver recruitment and retention dilemma affects not only transportation, but all other industries that depend on shipping products across North America. Ultimately American consumers are affected in their pocketbooks and in terms of their personal safety when sharing our highways and streets with commercial trucks and buses.
So let’s applaud the establishment of the FMCSA Clearinghouse as another step forward in improving highway safety and let’s hope that it better polices sketchy hiring managers and wells helps responsible employers avoid unsafe or risky drivers. But if safety is the number one concern in conducting business in the trucking and busing industry, then recruitment and retention of skilled labor in the form of professional CDL drivers is a close second. For without safe, skilled drivers in the seat handling carriers’ or their own expensive equipment loaded with freight or with passengers, there is no industry. Will the well-intended implementation of the Clearinghouse to help to weed out bad actors in the industry make recruitment and retention an even bigger challenge for this vital industry? Will some safe drivers in an industry with a tremendous driver-shortage decide its one more pain point? One that discourages them from continuing to drive or from considering a job in trucking or busing? What new best practices will human resource professionals in the business use to retain the skilled, safe drivers already in their companies? 2020 promises to give us a clearer vision of the answers to these key questions.
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, is a DOT Qualified Substance Abuse Professional. He is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr a national behavioral healthcare company that provides coaching programs and other services for the transportation industry that improve professional drivers’ health, safety and wellbeing.
Espyr is a leader in behavioral health care. It’s mission is to help people and organizations full potential. To learn more about Espyr’s comprehensive EAP and innovative behavioral health coaching programs please call 888-570-3479.