American truck drivers are fighting a proposal in Congress that would subject them to drug testing via hair sample, a relatively new method of analysis in which drugs can be detected for up to 90 days after ingestion, a significant increase over traditional urine testing.
Tension over the new rule between truck drivers and the truck companies that are supporting the bill shows a split in the industry over how to improve safety measures on the roads, where truck accidents made up 12 percent of highway fatalities in 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The groups sent competing letters to Congress expressing their views this week.
At issue for the truck companies is how closely they can monitor drivers to ensure that they are not operating under the influence.
Currently, companies randomly test drivers through urine samples, which only reflect drugs taken in the prior 48 hours, according to Abigail Potter, a senior research analyst for the American Trucking Association (ATA), an industry trade group. Under the new system, companies would test hair samples prior to hiring and then randomly thereafter, putting results in a database that could be shared with other trucking companies for up to three years.
"Motor carriers are really concerned by the use of uppers, stimulants, and opiates," Potter told VICE News. "I understand there might be privacy issues, but for the trucking industry, motor carriers are held to a very high safety standard and are required to ensure that drivers are not using any substance that can impair their driving."
But the union representing the truck drivers says the hair sampling is an unproven tool that could endanger the livelihood of drivers who are already "struggling to make ends meet," according to Edward Wytkind, President of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) at the AFL-CIO.
Wytkind told VICE News that it is easy to get false positives from hair samples, and it is difficult to determine that someone with a positive test actually ingested drugs or if they were in the air or environment around them. He also criticized a lack of standards for how hair specimens are collected and tested.
"We could have a bunch of bus drivers and truck drivers unfairly branded as drug users because of a false positive test. We could have a discriminatory situation emerging depending on what type of hair you have and the absorption rate, you may or may not trigger a positive based purely on the type of hair you have, and that doesn't sound like a fair process," Wytkind said.
"We think this is an overreach," Wytkind said, "and even worse it's an overreach when the science isn't really settled on this hair testing procedure yet."
The TTD pointed out in its letter to Congress that the testing might be inherently biased against darker skinned people, since dark, more porous hair retains drugs at a greater rate than light hair.
The American Trucking Association called the group's concerns over fairness "overblown," and said that many companies rely on hair testing as a valid form of testing.
Pascal Kintz, a toxicology expert and author of the book Hair Analysis in Clinical and Forensic Toxicology, told VICE News via email there is no "special issue" with hair testing causing false positives when compared with urine testing, since positive results from both types of testing are then confirmed by a process called mass spectrometry.
There is also no risk of racial bias when done correctly, he added.
The debate could have an impact on preventing the two to four percent of truck accidents in which drivers test positive for drug use, the ATA said. And each time there is a crash, they "can be very costly, to the motor carrier and to human life," the ATA's Abigail Potter said.
Truck accidents can be particularly deadly for passengers of smaller vehicles that they collide with, according to the National Highway Transpiration Safety Administration, which reported that in 2013, there were an estimated 326,000 crashes involving large trucks, 69,000 of which resulted in injuries. About 80 percent of the 3,964 people killed in the crashes were the occupants of other smaller vehicles.
Trucking giant J.B. Hunt instituted its own hair testing policy in 2008 and has not had any cases of post-accident positives since, Potter said.
When asked why trucking companies didn't follow J.B. Hunt in establishing private guidelines, and instead asked the federal government to mandate hair testing, Potter said that the hair testing is more costly than urine analysis and could be cost-prohibitive to companies. Under new rules, companies can share test results about employees for up to three years, reducing the need to repeat the costly tests, she said.
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