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GAO: Truck drivers taking illegal drugs get hired

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

WASHINGTON —  Tractor-trailer and bus drivers who tested positive for illegal drugs have flouted federal regulations by returning to work without the required treatment, in some cases transporting hazardous materials for many months, congressional investigators say.

The study by the Government Accountability Office, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, is the latest to detail problems involving unfit commercial drivers who can operate vehicles weighing 40 tons or more. The GAO found that 19 out of 37 commercial drivers who had a positive drug test in the last two years were hired elsewhere less than a month later _ keeping quiet about their previous test result.

These tractor-trailer or bus drivers, who had tested positive for cocaine, amphetamines or marijuana, passed a new pre-employment drug test either by quickly going clean or using products such as synthetic urine to mask drug use. They subsequently operated commercial vehicles for periods ranging from one month to over a year, GAO said.

Transportation Department regulations require that prospective employers request drug-testing records _ with the commercial driver's consent _ from previous employers. But because some drivers testing positive do not go through treatment and do not disclose test results, the new company might not be aware of drug use if it does not vigorously investigate.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., is currently looking at ways to help get unfit commercial drivers off the nation's highways. One proposal would create a clearinghouse for drug test results for commercial truck drivers to make it easier for employers to conduct checks.

The House committee "was instrumental in creating drug and alcohol testing rules in the late 1980s, and we will not stand idly by while drug-using drivers make a mockery of them," Oberstar said. "GAO's findings just prove that we must move forward aggressively to ensure the safety of the traveling public, and this committee will introduce legislation in that pursuit."

Some cases cited by GAO:

_A Tennessee truck driver tested positive for cocaine in May 2007. He moved to a different employer and was rehired after passing a new test eight days later. Prior to his tests, the driver was charged with possession of a controlled substance. He worked for several months afterward, driving trucks containing cargo and hazardous material.

_An Oklahoma truck driver tested positive for marijuana in October 2007 and passed a subsequent test with another company nine days later. The driver told investigators he "took appropriate measures to clean his system before applying at the second employer." The new employer said it was unaware of the prior drug test during the hiring and let him drive for a couple of months, but that he was now no longer working for the company.

The latest review comes after a GAO safety study disclosed by the AP earlier this month found hundreds of thousands of drivers carry commercial licenses even though they also qualify for full federal disability payments. According to that report, 563,000 commercial drivers were determined by the Veterans Affairs Department, Labor Department or Social Security Administration to be eligible for benefits over health issues, with alarming examples that raised doubts about the safety of the nation's highways.

Last week, lawmakers in the House scolded federal regulators for failing to implement recommendations made in 2001 that are aimed at keeping medically unfit commercial truck and bus drivers off the roads.

In the latest GAO study, investigators looked at data from a third-party administrator for commercial drivers who had tested positive for illegal drugs with one employer and then negative for another employer. The GAO then identified cases from the past two years where drivers had tested negative less than a month after a positive result.


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