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Legal pot makes it harder to recruit truck drivers, industry leader says

Companies find applicants withdraw when they learn of hair sample tests for drug use

Cannabis plants grow in the greenhouse Johnstown, N.Y. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
Cannabis plants grow in the greenhouse Johnstown, N.Y. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)

As the trucking industry struggles with a driver shortage, the president of a major lobby placed part of the blame on wider acceptance by states of marijuana use.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear told lawmakers at a Wednesday hearing that legalization of recreational marijuana by states is making it harder for the industry to find drug-free drivers. Still, low pay and poor working conditions are also hurdles to industry recruitment, according to a union leader.

“Obviously the use of marijuana — impairment from marijuana and opioids — these are all concerns to our industry and are added headwinds in terms of attracting talent,” Spear told lawmakers at a hearing to examine pressures the industry is facing.

The hearing at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit came as the industry faces multiple challenges, including driver shortage, a rise in the number of trucking accidents and a Democratic-led House that wants more stringent regulations.

More than 4,700 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks in 2017, a 9 percent increase from the previous year and up 41 percent since 2009, Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the panel.

“The state of trucking today has reached a pressure point,” Chase said. “While trucking is a vital, cherished and necessary part of our country’s commerce, we can and must do better.”

Lawmakers have blamed the rise in accidents on driver fatigue due to long driving hours and short rest and meal times. But Spear said passing cars rather than truck drivers were to blame for a large portion of the accidents.

Regarding marijuana, he said the industry wants to work with regulators, Congress and private-sector innovators to create a method for instantaneous testing like is done for alcohol impairment.


Nearly a dozen states have legalized recreational marijuana while more than 30 allow its medical use. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

“We simply cannot have that in the industry. … You cannot have people that are using controlled substances, that are impaired operating 80,000 pound equipment or tanks full of chemicals or petrol,” Spear said. “It is a problem that the states, we don’t believe, are taking into consideration.”

“Are you seeing in the states that have already legalized recreational use of marijuana even more of shortage of drivers being willing to take some of opportunities that are available in the industry?” asked Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, the subcommittee ranking member.

“Absolutely,” Spear responded. “We have several carrier members that pay the extra expense to do hair testing in addition to the urinalysis, and when the driver comes in and applies and they know they have to take the hair test, a lot of them just walk right out of the door.”

Better Conditions

LaMont Byrd, director of the Health and Safety Department at the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters, told CQ Roll Call that while marijuana testing is a part of the problem, those who turn away for that reason are not “quite certain” what career path they want to pursue.

A bigger problem he said, is that young people are simply less interested in commercial truck driving, and those not unionized deal with poor wages and working conditions.

“For some sectors of the industry, all the hours are not paid. Fortunately, for unionized drivers, our members are paid for every hour they do work,” Byrd said. “But it’s a tough job.”

As the industry, which has an increasingly older workforce, seeks to attract new drivers, some lawmakers have proposed lowering the age requirement for commercial long-distance truckers.

A bill introduced by Sen. Todd Young, and Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, both Indiana Republicans, would direct the Department of Transportation to write regulations lowering the driving age for commercial trucks to 18.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the subcommittee chairwoman, said at the hearing that lowering the minimum driver age won’t solve the cause of driver shortages.

“That’s probably wages and the really appalling working conditions that come with being a truck driver in our country today,” Norton said. “This is not an occupation in which people want to engage today, especially young people, and we need to understand it.”

The American Trucking Associations supports the bills, and Spear said that since 18 year-olds in the military are trained and qualified to operate heavy duty machinery and vehicles, they should be allowed to drive long-distance commercial vehicles.

He also asked Congress to encourage states to administer the skills test for commercial driver’s licenses within seven days of application or to utilize third party testers.

“A low unemployment rate and the stigma surrounding blue-collar work makes it difficult enough to recruit drivers into the trucking industry,” Spear said. “States that make applicants wait up to two months to take their skills test contribute to this problem by discouraging applicants from following through. It also invites skills erosion.”

House Transportation Chairman Peter A. DeFazio told CQ Roll Call during a break that he too is concerned with the safety risks associated with marijuana in the trucking industry and that Congress needs to advance research into a system for real-time testing.

But the Oregon Democrat would not say if a provision on marijuana testing would be included in a surface transportation bill that lawmakers have yet to introduce.

“You don’t want someone driving a semi or a private vehicle who meets some sort of intoxication standard,” DeFazio said. “But to totally disqualify someone from employment because in a state that has legalized it, they used it on a weekend when they weren’t working, is very problematic.”

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