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Will the DOT Test Truckers For Dangerous Opioids?

Opioid abuse has become a serious safety issue in car accidents and commercial truck accidents. We frequently investigate personal injury claims caused by an impaired driver. How has the abuse of prescription opioids affecting the commercial trucking industry?

A study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine reveals troubling information. The use of alcohol and drugs among truck drivers on the highway is common. For people who routinely investigate serious commercial trucking accidents, the study simply confirms what they have already seen. Drugs and alcohol are a factor in many deadly commercial truck and car accidents.

The test data shows that alcohol, amphetamines (‘speed’), cannabis, and cocaine, are the most frequently used drugs by truck drivers on the road. That makes sense. In today’s environment, truckers are often paid by the mile and pushed to make hauls. Drugs like amphetamines and cocaine are stimulants which allow truckers to drive longer without sleep.

Several years ago, an investigative journalist with ProPublica (Lauren Kirchner) wrote an article discussing drug abuse among truck drivers titled Late Nights, Long Drives, and Too Much Speed. Her opening paragraph depicts the problem and the danger it creates:

Driving under the influence of any drug, anywhere, is no joke. Alcohol and weed slow a driver’s reaction time, and speed and coke can impair a driver’s judgment in all sorts of ways — not least of which by only temporarily masking fatal levels of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. But when an impaired driver happens to be behind the wheel of, say, a 100,000-pound semi, that pushes the danger to another level.

In the past, much of the drug-related focus in the trucking industry involved either alcohol or the use of various stimulants by drivers. Yet, we are now seeing significant numbers of another drug putting lives in danger on the highway — prescription opioids.

In the past, I’ve written several times about health problems among commercial truck drivers. The rates of many chronic problems such as obesity and diabetes are higher among truck drivers. The sedentary work coupled with poor sleep and bad food choices on the highway create problems for trucker health. Many truckers face chronic health issues like painful arthritis or painful back conditions. Those issues often create safety risks for the public.

Last week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed a new rule adding four opioids to the panel of drugs screened in truck drivers. These additional opioids are:  hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and oxycodone. Opioid drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone are commonly abused opioid pain medications. Local pill mills (medical clinics that over provide these dangerous pain pills to patients) have recently closed in both Huntsville and Decatur. In the Huntsville case, a physician recently lost his medical license and pled guilty to crimes involving his activities. When abused, these drugs cause tremendous devastation. Even when the patient is properly taking these medications for chronic pain with a valid prescription, they can create safety risks.

I think the DOT should add these drugs to its drug panel. I’m not saying the presence of any amount of legitimately prescribed pain medications should automatically disqualify a driver. But, it should raise questions which need to be answered. The presence of these drugs should be known and should warrant additional medical information from the prescribing doctor in order to evaluate and insure the commercial driver is safe for the public. We simply cannot allow impaired commercial drivers to put families at risk on the highway. At the Blackwell Law Firm, we are committed to highway safety. We frequently discuss driver safety topics such as distracted driving, impaired driving and vehicle safety.