Drugs and Drivers: 4 troublesome scenarios and how to handle them

Drugs are on the mind of motorcoach operators for a variety of reasons—most compelling because of statistics that the connection between drug use (even prescription drugs) and deadly crashes is increasing. Close to one-third of drivers killed in crashes in 2006, who were tested for drugs, tested positive. Nearly a decade later, in 2015, that percentage jumped to 46 percent, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

An impaired driver is everyone’s worst nightmare, and that is especially the case with professional drivers, whether they are under the influence of alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription painkillers. Companies are under more scrutiny than ever to watch for signs of alcohol and drug abuse to make sure they aren’t letting impaired employees get behind the wheel.

Here are some things employers can do to ensure impaired drivers aren’t transporting passengers when faced with the following scenarios, according to Dr. Donna Smith, who worked for the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Transportation in crafting drug and alcohol testing regulations.

A passenger complains your driver’s eyes are red and he smells like marijuana.

The ideal response is to dispatch a supervisor to the site to do an in-person observation of the employee. If that isn’t possible, FMCSA rules allow for an assessment by phone. If the supervisor doesn’t think there is an imminent crisis, the driver can finish the route and follow up with an in-person assessment with a trained supervisor to determine if a test is required. Remember, an accusation by a rider isn’t enough to warrant a test or other action.

You get a call that the driver is driving erratically and the bus swerving.

In these situations, an employer has the option to contact local law enforcement to take immediate action. If the passengers are potentially in imminent danger, law enforcement will do a safety check. They are less likely to do this based on a complaint of suspected drug use. If the driver is observed by police operating the vehicle in an unsafe way, they’ll do the test, and the results could lead to criminal prosecution.

A random drug test comes back positive while a driver is on a trip.

A negative test is usually reported within 24 hours, while a positive test can take about 2-4 days because additional tests are required to confirm the results and narrow down what drug is in the employee’s system. The test results will then be reported to a doctor who has been assigned as a company’s Medical Review Officer.

Under federal law, the MRO must first contact the employee to determine if there is a legitimate medical explanation for the positive test, such as a prescription. For example, there’s a rare chance that a positive test for cocaine may really be an anesthetic used during a recent dental procedure.

If the driver doesn’t respond to the MRO within 24 hours, federal law allows an employer to remove a driver from “safety sensitive duty” and place him on paid or unpaid leave until contact is made with the MRO and the final results are sent to the company.

There are reports a driver is popping pills on duty

As with marijuana use, an allegation isn’t enough in this situation to order a test. A supervisor who has received training for drug testing needs to talk to the driver to assess if there are signs of impairment, such as slowed or slurred speech, mental fogginess or changes in the size of the eye pupils. If these signs of impairment are spotted, it is reasonable, legally, to ask the driver to take a drug test.

Even if that test comes back negative because there is a prescription, the company still may need to address a safety concern. An employer can request the driver undergo a DOT physical re-evaluation or get a clearance statement from the prescribing doctor.

“The focus should be on whether the driver is medically qualified to drive as opposed to zeroing in on narcotic painkillers, because the issue may be a result of a combination of drugs,” Smith said.

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