The History of DOT Drug Testing


You’re driving with your kids in the car and there’s a 20,000 pound semi truck in the other lane seven feet away. You’re doing everything in your control to ensure everyone’s safety, but what if that truck driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol? How can we prevent an impaired driver from getting behind the wheel and endangering others?

Over the past 4 decades, Department of Transportation (DOT) drug testing has become the transportation industry’s solution for maintaining safe roads and job sites. But where did it come from, who all is involved, and how has it adapted with the industry’s ever-changing regulations? For employers and employees alike, understanding the roots of DOT drug testing highlights the importance of a safe work environment. This blog, however, isn’t just about where we’ve been, but where we’re headed in the modern context of workplace safety. 

The Origins of Federally Mandated Drug Testing

The reality of impaired driving became very apparent in the late 1980s due to an increase in commercial vehicle crashes and workplace accidents attributed to drug use. In 1986, President Reagan signed an executive order initiating the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Program, prohibiting all federal employees from using illegal drugs on- or off-duty. Each federal agency had to implement a plan to achieve a drug free workplace, as well as drug testing to identify illegal drug users.

In 1987, Congress passed Public Law 100-71 to ensure:

  • Uniformity among the agencies’ testing plans
  • Reliable and accurate drug testing
  • Employee access to drug testing records
  • The confidentiality of drug testing results
  • Centralized oversight of the testing program

The centralized oversight was assigned to The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Authority of the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Program was delegated to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This was further delegated to the Division of Workplace Programs (DWP) in the Center for Substance Abuse Preventions (CSAP).

The DWP was tasked with establishing technical and scientific standards for federal workplace drug test programs and directing the National Laboratory Certification Program (NLCP). The NLCP has been operated by RTI international under contract with the HHS since its inception. In 1988 The HHS secretary published the first Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs, which established the scientific and technical guidelines for federal workplace drug testing programs, as well as standards for the NLCP.

The Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991 required the DOT to incorporate the scientific and technical aspects of the HHS Mandatory Guidelines into its regulations and required DOT-regulated drug testing to be performed only in HHS-certified laboratories. The DOT oversees drug and alcohol testing for workers in aviation, trucking, railroads, mass transit, pipelines, and other transportation industries. DOT’s Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy and Compliance (ODAPC) publishes, implements, and provides authoritative interpretations of DOT’s rules which are published in 49 CFR Part 40.

Yet, the act’s creation was only the starting point. New legislation comes about, the industry constantly adapts, and testing practices advance. This calls for the continuous updating and redefining of what DOT drug testing is and what it means for everyone involved, from lawmakers to truck drivers.

The push for anti-drug policies was even backed by most unions as they recognized it was a necessary step toward the protection of public health and worker safety. It spoke volumes that a practice with such inherent stakes could be widely accepted and implemented with solidarity. State agencies regulating worker’s compensation and unemployment benefits stepped in to create rules regarding the handling of claims when employees failed drug tests, and offered discounts on annual insurance premiums if drug-free workplace programs were in place. As a result, there was a significant increase in workplace drug testing programs.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 11% of adults employed full-time currently use illegal drugs. The U.S. Department of Labor states that more than 60% of adults know someone who has come to work under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. These statistics suggest drug use at a higher rate than is detected in employee drug tests, again lending credibility to the fact that drug testing programs deter drug use.

A DOT drug test is more than a procedural hoop; it’s an assessment of safety and compliance. DOT workers are out performing safety sensitive duties among other citizens and without preventative measures, they could cause a potentially fatal accident. This is why there’s incredible value in understanding the behind-the-scenes technologies and regulations that power DOT drug testing.

[See How Traverse Helps You Navigate DOT Self Collection]

Understanding the “why” emphasizes the importance of DOT drug testing but understanding the “how” is what promotes a more efficient process. From the detailed protocol for specimen collection, through chain-of-custody documentation, and all the way to medical review and oversight, each stage is a chapter of safety assurance. The unity of these processes, the certified individuals involved, and the consistent review and adaptation attest to the razor-sharp focus on safety at the heart of DOT drug testing.

Now you know what it’s took to develop DOT drug testing over the decades. It’s time to look to the future with Traverse. Allow us to handle all aspects of your DOT drug testing and keep you compliant as regulations change, technologies advance, and the transportation industry adapts.

The mission to keep our roads and transportation industries drug-free is an ongoing battle, and the role of DOT drug testing is one that will continually evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future. Don’t wait to enhance the safety and integrity of your workforce. Join the movement towards achieving unparalleled safety standards in the transportation industry. Contact Traverse now to discover how our DOT drug testing programs can be tailored to meet your organization’s needs. Together, we can ensure a safer tomorrow for everyone on the road.