Steve Vaughn, vice president of field operations, HELP Inc., provider of PrePass 

This blog originally appeared on the IdeaXchange.

With more states legalizing both recreational and medical marijuana, professional truck drivers are more likely to be sharing the roadway with car drivers operating under the influence of marijuana. That’s according to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) and its recently released study “Marijuana Legalization and Impaired Driving Solutions for Protecting our Roadways.”

With 31 states legalizing medical marijuana, 10 states plus the District of Columbia legalizing recreational use, plus nationwide legalization in Canada (recreational use) and Mexico (medical use), ATRI found that marijuana-induced driving under the influence (DUI) is a growing safety concern.

In 2016 over 28% of traffic fatality crashes involved at least one driver who was operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. How many were also driving under the influence of pot, and how many are now on the road under the influence of marijuana, is the focus of the evolving science of marijuana management. The legalization trends have law enforcement and safety experts expressing justified concerns and seeking answers.

The ATRI report explores what is known and unknown about detecting marijuana use. While ATRI’s concern is for the overall safety on our roadways, the report is both a reminder and a warning to professional truck drivers:

  • Regardless of state laws, under federal law, using and even transporting marijuana is illegal for truck drivers.
  • Regardless of how drug testing laws evolve at the state level, the federal drug testing regime for truck drivers is well-established and can lead to the loss of your job and potentially your commercial driver’s license (CDL).
  • Regardless of popular opinion, marijuana use does negatively affect driving ability.
  • Because we share the roads, your safety and the safety of others requires you to recognize, avoid and report inebriated drivers.

Marijuana And Federal Law

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulates truck driver use and testing for marijuana and other drugs. Federal drug testing includes mixtures and synthetic versions. The testing protocols and procedures are set out in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) title 49, Part 382 and Part 40. As every CDL holder should know, drivers can be tested in the following circumstances:

  • Pre-employment screening
  • Post-accident (when a fatality, injury or vehicle tow-away is involved)
  • Random testing
  • Reasonable suspicion
  • Return-to-duty and follow-up, following a positive test

In each of these instances, the tests will reveal if there is the presence of marijuana. If the level is above the regulated cutoff points, the driver will legally have failed the drug test, irrespective of whether the driver was “inebriated” at the time the test samples were taken.

While states’ laws are mixed as to whether marijuana use by a driver is a per se violation (where mere use is enough to prosecute) or true intoxication has to be proven, federal law is clear: it tests for marijuana presence above a certain level. And federal law preempts state and local laws. Professional drivers are simply held to a professional standard — something to remember, as marijuana use remains detectable for seven days after use on average. (See the PrePass blog, “Trucking Fleets, Drivers Face New Rules Over Illegal Drug Use, Testing.”)

Speaking of detection, drivers may also test positive following the use of CBD oil (cannabidiol). Recently, a driver sued the manufacturer of a CBD oil after testing positive and losing his job. The CBD manufacturer had claimed that all traces of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, the marijuana intoxicant) had been removed from its product.

On the horizon at FMCSA, is the federal Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse. With launch expected in early 2020, the clearinghouse will contain the results of federal drug tests for five years or after a driver completes a return-to-duty test, whichever is later. Motor carriers will be able to query the clearinghouse to see whether a potential hire has a record of positive tests. So, maybe trying out that CBD oil may not be such a good idea.

Marijuana And Highway Safety

The ATRI report notes younger drivers are the most likely to believe that marijuana intoxication does not impair driving, and consequently they are more likely to engage in its use and continue to drive. But studies clearly demonstrate that marijuana does impair recognition and physical reactions key to safe driving:

  • Attention Safe driving requires the reception, distinguishing and prioritization of numerous stimuli – from road signs to other drivers to pavement conditions. Marijuana reduces the ability of drivers to juggle more than one thing at once. (See the PrePass IdeaXchange article, “Dangers of truck driving while ‘attentionally blind’.”)
  • Reaction Being “mellow” may limit a driver’s sense of aggravation, but it also slows reaction times.
  • Lane position A driver’s ability to steadily control the vehicle is impaired by marijuana intoxication. This is often seen by movement within a lane. A marijuana-intoxicated driver may attempt to compensate for his slower reactions and impaired control by increasing his following distance from other vehicles – which, in turn, can introduce unexpectedly slower vehicles into the traffic stream.

All these shortcomings are only intensified if the driver also drinks alcohol while using marijuana.

As a professional truck driver, safety is a shared responsibility with other highway users. If you see a slower vehicle, perhaps weaving in its lane, perhaps a driver hesitant to make decisions or slow to react — first stay out of harm’s way by dropping back or passing only when safe. Then, report the situation to law enforcement, or call your dispatcher, and pass the information along. It may be alcohol, it may be marijuana or it may be a health condition, but everyone’s safety, including that of the driver, demands attention by authorities. And, as ATRI reports, more and more it may be the influence of marijuana.

Steve Vaughn is vice president of field operations for HELP Inc., the provider of the truck weigh station bypass system PrePass, as well as toll payment and trucking data visualization technology. He previously served with the California Highway Patrol and is a past president of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.