Examining an overlooked reason for the truck driver shortage

Posted on January 27, 2022 by Andrew Scibelli

2022 is in full swing and there are small signs of progress – at least theoretically – in confronting the truck driver shortage. The federal government is stepping in to move forward with measures that include an apprenticeship program for 18-to-20-year-old drivers. And, while the debate ensues over the effectiveness of these measures, one of the biggest elephants in the room is getting overlooked.

In this article, we’ll look at the impact of the FMCSA’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse and how it continues to be one of the key reasons for the truck driver shortage.


What is the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse?

The Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse is a centralized database that was established to record positive drug and alcohol test results among truck drivers. According to the FMSCA, “The Clearinghouse rule requires FMCSA-regulated employers, medical review officers (MROs), substance abuse professionals (SAPs), consortia/third party administrators (C/TPAs), and other service agents to report to the Clearinghouse information related to violations of the drug and alcohol regulations.”

reasons-for-truck-driver-shortageDrivers who test positive for drug and/or alcohol use that violates the law are unable to drive a truck unless they complete the return-to-duty program. Drug and alcohol testing of drivers is recommended at the following times.

  • Prior to employment
  • After an accident
  • Randomly (carriers are selected by the FMSCA to test drivers at random)
  • When there is reasonable suspicion

Drivers are not required to register for the Clearinghouse, but they must do so to provide consent to a current or prospect employer to access their records. Under the Clearinghouse rule, carriers are not allowed to hire drivers without first examining their records in the database. So, drivers effectively need to register to be hired.

Importantly, carriers are required by law to examine the three most recent years of a driver’s record prior to hiring. Before the Clearinghouse came into existence, drivers who had drug or alcohol violations on their record were able to simply omit the affected experience from their resumés. The hiring company would thus be unaware of the driver’s drug and alcohol history. The Clearinghouse removes this blind spot.

The Clearinghouse came into effect on January 1, 2020. So, with the three-year background check requirement, carriers will be able to solely rely on the Clearinghouse for driver background information as of 2023.


How is the Clearinghouse a reason for the truck driver shortage?

According to the New York Post, over 72,000 drivers were removed from the road due to drug and alcohol violations in the 22 months between the start of the Clearinghouse in January 2020 and November 2021. This includes new violations as well as previous violations that were not discovered until the Clearinghouse’s existence.

With a truck driver shortage that is currently projected to be 80,000 drivers and growing, the loss of this number of drivers is staggering.

Just as concerning is the fact that, out of the 72,000 drivers taken off the road, the vast majority – nearly 55,000 – have not taken any steps to return to driving via the return-to-duty program. These drivers may be pursuing other fields in which regulations are more lax, or they may be staying out of the workforce altogether.

Most offenses (56%) involve marijuana use. Other drug violations involve amphetamine or methamphetamine (18%), cocaine (15%) and opioids (4%).

The role of marijuana in taking so many drivers off the road appears to be a conundrum to some in the industry. Unlike alcohol, which can be detected when a person is under the influence and is not detected before or after that, marijuana is detectable by current drug tests for up to 30 days. A positive test result cannot determine when a person was using the drug (i.e., if the driver was under the influence when behind the wheel), it just shows that the person used the drug within the last 4+ weeks.

Additionally, marijuana is legal in 19 states, though it is not legal federally (and the Clearinghouse is a federal regulation). While, of course, no one is arguing that drivers should be able to be under the influence behind the wheel, some argue that drivers are being harshly punished for ingesting a substance in their off time that is legal where they reside.

With marijuana use on the rise among the general population, it is an issue that will continue to impact the industry for the foreseeable future. For example, trucking companies interviewed in the Post article admit to turning away substantial numbers of prospective drivers because they were unable to pass a pre-employment drug screening.

The bottom line is that drug testing plays a vital role in keeping our roadways safe. The trucking industry needs to figure out how to attract more drivers to balance out the number who can’t pass a drug test.


Takeaways for shippers

As a shipper, it’s not your job to be concerned with the drug and alcohol testing of drivers. But it is your job to make sure the transportation providers you work with are. This comes down to thoroughly vetting each carrier you work with – or, better yet, having a 3PL freight broker do it for you.

Bulk Connection is a 3PL broker that specializes in bulk freight shipping. We have one of the largest networks of bulk carriers in North America, with all carriers properly vetted to ensure that they are free of violations. So, if you’re looking for safe and reliable transportation for your dry or liquid bulk products, contact Bulk Connection and see how we can put decades of bulk freight experience to work for you.


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This entry was posted in Freight Industry Issues by Andrew Scibelli