Posted April 13, 2022

How Deregulation is Affecting the Driver Shortage

By Grace Tino

Over the last few years, a lot of light has been shed on the challenging lifestyle of truckers. Between driver rights, supply chain snags, and an ongoing overall shortage of truckers, the industry has been facing continuous complications for years. The increased benefits and wages are a definite positive of the changes in the industry, however, some new challenges are arising regarding regulations for drivers. Licensed truckers have long been required to complete drug and alcohol screenings, and in 2020, the Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCSA) launched its Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse database. This centralized system efficiently tracks drug and alcohol records for all commercial drivers in order to keep companies, and their employees, within federal compliance. However, statistics released by the FMCSA for 2021 reveal a spike in positive tests for drivers, with some of the highest numbers for detected marijuana usage. Record numbers of drivers are being taken off the road due to failed drug testing, which puts a new strain on the trucking labor shortage.

The FMCSA Clearinghouse officially launched on January 6, 2020. The database functions as an official resource on records and violations pertaining to the Department of Transportation’s regulations on drug and alcohol usage for CDL drivers. All employers that are FMCSA-regulated, medical review officers, third-party administrators, and other service agents of the industry are required to submit information regarding the testing of their driver employees. The goal of the Clearinghouse is to centralize this crucial information for both employers and government agencies to keep the roads safe for both commercial drivers and pedestrians. Additionally, drivers who fail a test are required to inform new employers of their violations, and the information will remain in the system for a minimum of five years. Drivers also can complete a return-to-duty process following a violation, which is a regulated education program for drivers including a follow-up test after completion.

Essential changes that arose recently from the driver shortage included increases in driver wages, improved communication between companies and their drivers, updated benefits packages, and efficient training processes; all these changes reflect a positive change in industry practices that aim to keep drivers on the road happy, as well as entice new drivers to the industry. However, recent reports from the FMCSA Clearinghouse are bringing yet another challenge for the driver shortage. Reported drug violations for CDL drivers increased overall 10.1% from 2020 to 2021, 82% of which were specifically for positive drug tests. Of the 15 total drug categories tested in drivers, cocaine usage increased by 10.4% and 5.3% for marijuana. Additionally, a total of about 53% of the positive drug tests in 2021 were for marijuana.

Such large increases in drug violations directly impact the driver shortage; over 70,000 drivers are prohibited to drive as of September 2021. Even more concerning, of the 104,840 drivers that have had a violation since the start of the Clearinghouse in 2020, only 77% have completed the required return-to-duty process. This gap leaves a lingering question: do these drivers plan to ever return to their jobs and the trucking industry at all? Companies are struggling to tackle the driver shortage as it is, and enticing drivers to complete a return-to-duty process is yet another challenge for closing the gap.

Marijuana is still considered an illegal Schedule I drug at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act. However, a total of 37 states have legalized marijuana for medical usage and 18 have legalized the substance for recreational usage. CDL drivers face very stringent regulations regarding substance use, but the discrepancy between state and federal deregulation of marijuana, which was among the highest causes for drug violations for drivers in 2021, brings about a new challenge. Drivers are prohibited to use any substance under the Schedule I class. The federal government has been considering the reform of drug regulations, but no legal changes have come to fruition yet.

President Biden has voiced support for the decriminalization of marijuana on a federal level; while his proposed changes will not technically make it a legal substance, it would result in the drug being moved to a Class II status for medical usage. Other officials, such as Vice President Harris, have made efforts in the past to legalize the substance. Harris proposed an action called the MORE Act in 2020, which would decriminalize marijuana as well as offer substance abuse support for users instead of jail time, but the act did not pass a Senate vote. It is possible that the act will be brought up again in the coming months. Federal-level deregulation could open doorways for drivers currently facing the removal of their licenses from positive marijuana tests and significantly aid in the driver shortage. Until the drug is moved to a Schedule II class or federally legalized, the FMCSA will still be considering marijuana a prohibited substance for drivers.

The driver shortage has been a high-priority concern for the country for years, with the last few years putting an increased strain on the challenge as it impacts supply chains at various levels. The start of the FMCSA Clearinghouse, a database of drug records and violations for CDL drivers, has exposed another impact on the driver shortage. With thousands of drivers facing the loss of their licenses due to drug violations and many of these drivers failing to register in a return-to-duty process, even more truckers have been taken off the road. A large number of violations have been traced to marijuana usage which is legal in some states but is still considered a Schedule I drug at a federal level. As the deregulation of the substance continues across the country, trucking companies and the FMCSA are faced with a conflict between the various regulations and how these should impact drivers. Until the drug is reevaluated federally, the FMCSA must continue to consider marijuana usage a violation. The conversation around the substance shows a possibility that in the coming year, regulations may change and allow many drivers back on the roads.