In the United States, we rely on the essential service that long-distance commercial truck drivers provide. But the trucking industry has become plagued with substance abuse and mental health disorders. In this article, we will look at the reasons many truck drivers have turned to drug and alcohol use, the types and consequences of substance abuse, and what can be done to help the situation. With further questions, reach out to a Chicago attorney with experience in truck accident law.
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Substance Abuse: Why Truck Drivers?
The pressures placed on drivers by the trucking industry—together with the lonely, monotonous, and often stressful nature of the job—have led some truck drivers to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. Why a high number of truck drivers do drugs has a lot to do with the need to stay awake and alert for abnormally long periods of time.
Truck drivers are allowed by federal law to drive up to 11 hours consecutively in a single stretch. But survey results have indicated that a large percentage of truckers regularly violate this rule, driving more hours at a time than is allowed. Incentives attached to extra mileage and unfair demands from dispatchers often cause truck drivers to feel the need to push through exhaustion to continue on the road. Common drugs truck drivers use to stay awake include amphetamines and cocaine—stimulants which help users remain awake for unnaturally long intervals.
The problem is further intensified as trucking companies are given the impression that drivers are capable of making longer trips than they can reasonably manage. This leads to a vicious cycle of longer shifts assigned and more drugs taken to keep up. The dangers of reckless behavior, addiction, and overdose become very serious. The issue is even worse among young (under 35) and inexperienced drivers, who are more likely to be taken advantage of by trucking companies and assigned more grueling routes.
But the need to artificially stimulate wakefulness is not the only reason substance abuse and addiction is frequently seen among truck drivers. Trucking as a career forces drivers to spend weeks upon end seated alone in a truck cab. A lack of the necessities many people take for granted—like companionship, stability, adequate rest, exercise, normal sleeping and waking patterns, and even healthy meals—can take a serious toll on a driver’s mental and emotional health.
It’s estimated that as many as 60% of individuals with substance abuse problems also suffer from a mental health illness like depression. The following is a list of factors that are believed to contribute to the issue of truck driver substance abuse:
- Feeling a need to stay awake longer
- Long hours of constant work
- Uncertain pay and pay based on mileage
- Poor physical health
- Poor mental or emotional health
Legal and Illegal Drug Abuse and Truck Drivers
The percentage of truck drivers who do drugs or drink alcohol behind the wheel is difficult to accurately determine. Studies on truck driver substance use have seen about one-third of survey participants admit to amphetamine usage. The following drugs are the ones most frequently found to be abused by truck drivers:
The problems associated with the use and abuse of these types of drugs include impaired functioning, increased reckless behaviors, paranoia, hallucinations, and agitation—in addition to addiction, long term health problems, and the danger of overdose.
But many people wonder what drugs are illegal for truck drivers. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) currently prohibits the use of several types of substances for truck drivers. Drivers are regularly tested for these substances and must pass a clean test to avoid penalty. Federal guidelines state that no truck driver may be on duty and possess or be under the influence of:
- Schedule I substances (including heroin, LSD, marijuana, and ecstasy)
- Any type of amphetamine
- Any type of narcotic
- Any other type of drug which can impair driving ability (including prescription medications)
If a driver is taking a prescription medication, a physician must specifically advise that the medication will not impair the user’s ability to drive a commercial motor vehicle.
Alcohol Abuse and Truck Drivers
Alcohol abuse may be more prevalent among truck drivers than any other type of mood-altering substance. Some studies have found that the U.S. has higher rates of alcohol abuse among truck drivers than any other nation. And more than half of drivers self-reported drinking and driving in substance abuse studies.
The federal rules for alcohol use and commercial truck driving are strict. Drivers are not allowed to possess alcohol, be under the influence of alcohol, or have a measured alcohol concentration in their blood while on duty, driving, or in contact with a commercial motor vehicle. Driver are forbidden from being under the influence of alcohol within four hours of going on duty. Alcohol should only be on board a commercial vehicle when it is part of the shipment being transported.
What Substance Abuse Disqualifies You from Being a Truck Driver?
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the U.S. DOT require commercial vehicle drivers to follow alcohol and drug testing rules. The DOT drug and alcohol testing employee handbook provides comprehensive information about the rules for substance use, testing, and reasons for disqualification. There are additional mandates at the state level for those who operate commercial motor vehicles like tractor-trailers with a commercial driver’s license (CDL). If a truck driver is found to be in violation of sobriety rules, they can be disqualified.
When a commercial truck driver tests positive on a drug test or registers a 0.04 percent or higher blood alcohol content (BAC), they are considered to have failed a test. Additionally, truck drivers do not have the right to refuse a drug or alcohol test. Refusing to submit to a test is equivalent to failing a test, and can be grounds for disqualification for a certain amount of time. Based on FMCSA rules, the following type of testing is conducted:
- Reasonable Suspicion/Cause
In the case of a failed test (or a refusal to take a test), the driver will be immediately removed from their duties until they have completed the required “return-to-duty process.” Part of this process requires the driver to work with a DOT-qualified substance abuse professional (SAP). The DOT Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) Program will be discussed further below.
For those who drive commercial motor vehicles, 0.04 percent is the BAC limit, rather than the standard 0.08 percent for most drivers of passenger vehicles. For truck drivers who have a BAC above 0 but below 0.04, various rules apply. For example, the FMCSA requires that drivers with a BAC between 0.02 and 0.039 not resume their driving duties for 24 hours. If a commercial truck driver is convicted of a DUI (regardless of BAC), they will typically be disqualified from driving for a year, or three years if transporting hazardous materials. A conviction of two or more DUIs may be grounds for lifetime disqualification.
The DOT does not make decisions about hiring and firing, only about licensing and certification. The responsibility to fire an employee is left to the employer. So while a failed drug test may not immediately result in loss of employment, it may lead to loss of the certification or license required to perform the job.
Signs of Drunk Driving or Drug Abuse Behind the Wheel
The use of drugs and alcohol can lead drivers to make reckless decisions. The following dangerous driving behaviors are likely to be observed when a truck driver is under the influence:
- Swerving and weaving
- Changing lanes abruptly without turn signals
- Drifting in and out of lanes
- Driving at night without lights
- Driving far under the speed limit
- Inappropriate use of truck horn
- Rapid acceleration and deceleration
- Driving on road shoulders or other areas not intended for driving
- Sudden braking or stopping in the middle of the road
- Driving the wrong way against the flow of traffic
- Making illegal turns
- Signals that do not match actions (e.g., left turn signal for a right turn)
- Disregard of traffic signs and traffic signals
- Running red lights
- Driving over medians or straddling the center line
If you see signs that a truck driver may be intoxicated, stay clear of the truck, pull over safely, and report the incident. Dial 911 immediately in emergency situations, or when you fear a life may be in danger. To report a negligent truck driver, you can file a complaint with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Truck Driver Substance Abuse Prevention
Failing to address the seriousness of truck driver substance abuse leads to dangerous problems at multiple levels. Individual truck drivers deserve the help they need to overcome and prevent mental health issues and addictions. Trucking companies owe their employees a safe environment that does not promote and reward risky driving behaviors. And other drivers who share the road with 40-ton vehicles need to know that the drivers of these commercial vehicles are not under the debilitating influence of drugs or alcohol.
There are a few ways that progress is being made in this area. If you or a truck driver you know is struggling with substance abuse issues, reach out to a professional for help.
The DOT Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) Program
The U.S. DOT’s Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) program helps connect drivers who have violated a DOT drug and alcohol program regulation with a substance abuse professional. The SAP can help make recommendations concerning education, treatment, follow-up testing, and aftercare. If an employee of a trucking company tests positive for drugs or alcohol, or requests treatment for an addiction, the employer can refer them to the SAP for help. SAPs make determinations about when a truck driver is safe to return to their duties after a substance abuse violation.
Truck Driver Rehab Programs
The American Addiction Centers offers rehab services specifically designed for truck drivers who have developed addiction issues through the course of their jobs. Admissions representatives are available 24/7 to help. The organization can be reached online or by calling (888) 429-5535.
Legal Accountability for Negligent Trucking Companies
For all two-car crashes involving a large truck and a smaller car, 97% of those killed are occupants of the small car, not the large truck. Trucking companies that have created dangerous conditions need to know that there are legal consequences for negligent actions.
If a trucking company is allowed to persist in poor systemic practices like careless training, lack of penalty for drivers who fail drug tests, and assigning unreasonably long hours, the likelihood of an accident will continually increase. At Thomas Law Offices, we have successfully represented clients whose lives were devastated by trucking accidents. Reach out to our firm to discuss your case details.
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