In accidents caused by driver error, drug and alcohol abuse are the leading cause of trucking accidents. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, 44% of these accidents involved either illegal or prescription medicine use. Because of these staggering figures, the FMCSA has instituted strict regulations regarding when and how often truck drivers get tested.
Truck drivers must be tested for drugs before employment begins, after crashes, and at other random times. Drivers must be tested for alcohol in their systems after crashes and on a random basis as well.
Truck Drivers and Drug Abuse
Drug abuse is more of a problem amongst truck drivers than alcohol abuse. Cocaine and methamphetamine are the most common illegal drugs abused by truck drivers. According to truckers themselves, these drugs are commonly available at truck stops. Ease of availability combined with the fact that these drugs have the effect of allowing users to stay awake for longer make them particularly attractive to truck drivers.
Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs
While prescription and over-the-counter drugs are legal, they can be just as dangerous as illicit drugs when they are taken behind the wheel of an 18 wheeler. This is because all drugs have side effects, and the most common side effects are ones that are often most dangerous behind the wheel.
Truck drivers often lead lifestyles that are conducive to requiring drug treatment. They are often sedentary for long hours, awake for long hours at night, and consume a large amount of junk food. All of these can lead to serious conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and sleep apnea. Treatment for these conditions can mean that a truck driver isn’t functioning at 100% behind the wheel.
A University of Minnesota study published in Accident Analysis & Prevention revealed that obese commercial vehicle drivers have a higher risk of crashing than those who maintain a healthy weight. Specifically, those with a body mass index of 35 or more had a 43 to 55% higher risk of crashing. This is due to the fact that obesity causes fatigue, excessive daytime drowsiness, and limited mobility. Obesity is also linked to sleep apnea, which leads to poor sleep quality, which can also lead a driver to be sleepy behind the wheel.
Prescription narcotic painkillers are also a serious danger when taken while driving, as are anti-anxiety medications, prescription sleep aids, and sedatives. These all can result in slowed reaction times, dulled alertness, and inability to accurately judge distance.
The following drugs are prohibited for drivers of Commercial Motor Vehicles:
- Anti-seizure medications
- Narcotic drugs
- Other habit forming drugs
Ironically, over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be even more dangerous than those requiring a prescription. Cold and flu medications are easily accessible and can result in severe drowsiness and inability to function. It takes focused concentration to respond in a timely manner to the conditions on the road. Truck drivers have to be vigilant at all times in order to be safe. They must not only be in control of their own actions, but they must be responsive to the actions of other drivers as well. This means that it is safest to refrain from any type of drug use while behind the wheel.
The FMCSA identified the following OTC medications as affecting driver safety:
- Cold and allergy medications
- Sleep aids
- Pain relievers
- Diet pills
- Medications that contain caffeine, ephedrine, or pseudoephedrine
In order to be as safe as possible behind the wheel, truckers should talk to their doctors about any and all potential side effects of prescribed medications before taking them.
Alcohol Abuse and Regulation
Alcohol abuse amongst truckers has been shown to be less of a problem than it is with drivers of passenger cars. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2011, 2% of truck drivers who died in car accidents had a blood alcohol level greater than .08, while 33% of passenger car fatalities were legally intoxicated. As explained above, drug abuse is a bigger problem amongst truck drivers.
However, standards for legal intoxication for truck drivers are different than they are for regular drivers. For those holding a commercial drivers license, the level of blood alcohol content that qualifies as intoxicated is .04, as opposed to .08. In addition, the FMCSA prohibits any alcohol use within four hours of a trucker’s shift.
The FMCSA also requires the following of trucking companies:
- Trucking companies must provide educational materials and must establish drug and alcohol policies
- Trucking companies must have an official drug and alcohol program with an assigned company official to run it
- Trucking companies must train supervisors regarding what should be considered reasonable suspicion of alcohol or substance abuse
- Trucking companies must educate employees on testing procedures
Blood alcohol tests will be required in the following situations:
- After all fatal accidents
- After accidents in which driver performance is a possible contributing factor
- If supervisor or official has reasonable suspicion of alcohol use based on observed behavior
- On a random basis
- When a driver returns from a suspension
If alcohol abuse is confirmed, the employee must be removed from safety-sensitive functions, and can not return until he is evaluated by a substance abuse professional and has complied with treatment.
Been in a Trucking Accident? Let Us Help.
In order to determine the cause of a trucking accident, your attorney must establish whether or not the truck driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This can help establish truck driver or company negligence. If you have been injured in an 18 wheeler accident and suspect that drug or alcohol abuse may have contributed, call one of our truck accident attorneys to discuss your case.