Aug 25, 2017



Large fines. Potential jail time. Lost income. The loss of a job, or of an entire career.

With serious threats like these perpetually hanging over their heads, it’s not like commercial truck drivers need extra incentive not to drink — or take controlled substances — before or while they drive. But, just in case, State troopers, local sheriffs and police, and federal and state trucking weight and safety officers will be stepping up their enforcement of impaired driving laws nationwide through September 4 as part of their annual Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign.
And drivers aren’t the only transportation industry workers at risk. In certain circumstances dispatchers and trucking managers could be fined and penalized for the actions of any drivers they supervise who get caught operating vehicles under the influence. Even trucking company owners — or senior managers at the big, publicly traded trucking companies — are at risk of being fined or, in extreme cases, shut down if officials detect strong patterns of impaired driving or repeat offenders being employed at the same line.

The Drive Sober program, now in its 19th year, has been one of several key education and enforcement efforts promoted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other safety-focused agencies and non-profits credited with an overall reduction in the rate of traffic accidents involving impaired drivers over the last two decades.

Enforcement campaigns like Drive Sober make a difference

Still, the problem persists, mostly at the private vehicle level, to be sure, but also among the professional driving community. So officers will be pulling over more vehicles, including big rigs, local delivery trucks, and even heavy duty construction vehicles during the 17-day 2017 campaign. In fact, the timing of the annual campaign covers the waning weeks of summer and the Labor Day holiday weekend, one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year for excessive drinking. NHTSA and supporting state and federal agencies also wage a similar campaign each year around the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period, another peak time for drinking to excess.

Since police and public safety officials began focusing intently on the problem of impaired driving in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the passage of tough mandatory sentencing laws for those convicted in such cases, the United States has put a big dent into the rate of impaired driving accidents. The number of such incidents has not kept pace with the growth of the nation’s population or the growth in the number of vehicle and passenger miles traveled. But the work is far from done.

In fact, 2015 saw the end of a five decade-long string of annual decline in overall traffic fatalities going all the way back to 1965. And a big reason why that positive streak was broken was because of worrisome increase in alcohol and impaired driving-related fatalities in 2015. That number rose to 10,265, up 3.2 percent from 9,943 in 2014 (final totals for 2016 are not yet available). That means that almost one third of the 35,092 total highway deaths in 2015 (29 percent) involved drivers who were impaired by alcohol or some controlled substance. 

And though we all can take justifiable pride in the dramatic changes made in the transportation industry’s culture related to the use of alcohol and drugs over the last 40 years, we would be kidding ourselves to think the problem has been eliminated. Truly egregious cases of truckers operating vehicles while impaired are so rare these days that they invariably generate big headlines when they do happen. But run-of-the-mill impaired driving incidents involving truck drivers are still too common.

Reminder: For commercial drivers, the legal limit is .04

As a refresher, drivers and their dispatchers and managers need to remember that a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reading of as little as .04 during a traffic stop will earn the driver a ticket, a fine and, mostly likely, the suspension of his or her license for a period of two weeks to six months depending on other factors. And, in most states, refusing to participate in a BAC test during an enforcement stop is the legal equivalent to admitting to driving while impaired.

That .04 BAC limit for truck drivers is half that of the .08 BAC limit that applies to private vehicle drivers for a very important reason. Because of the mass of their trucks, and because their big, long trucks are inherently harder to control when braking, avoiding hazards or operating in very close quarters, the margin for error among drivers is significantly smaller. The slight upset that a private vehicle driver with a BAC of .04 could easily handle poses a much greater challenge for the driver of a 70-foot long, 75,000-pound big rig whose reflexes and judgement are even slightly impaired.

Truckers and their superiors also need to be reminded that with only rare exceptions, alcohol is not to be consumed in a commercial truck, even when the driver is off duty. And even if a driver carefully abides by the 4-hour rule—meaning he or she does not consume alcohol within four hours of driving a commercial truck—they still can have a BAC above .04 depending on how much they drank prior to the 4-hour window, how close to that 4-hour window they drank, their body weight and other health-related factors.

Additionally, drivers need to remember that they must report to their bosses any time they receive a ticket or are arrested on an impaired driving charge. While that may or may not trigger the suspension of their license in many cases it can lead to a lengthy suspension or even the loss of their job under company policies. 

Dispatchers and other managers also need to be increasingly aware of non-alcohol driver impairment. The legalization of marijuana in a number of states and its increased social acceptance, even where it remains illegal, means drivers today are more likely to be exposed to, and tempted to use it during their off times. Similarly, the dramatic increase in the abuse of opioids in America should be a rising concern to trucking company managers and drivers alike, especially since most cases of opioid addiction begin with the legitimate use of powerful pain killers to deal with pain, including the kind of back pain commonly reported by truck drivers.

Spotting drivers who might be using marijuana or opioids based on their behavior is not as easy as spotting drivers who’ve been drinking. Thus, drug testing has gained popularity within the industry. So, wise drivers should expect to be asked to provide specimens more frequently, and especially during the Drive Sober campaign enforcement periods.   

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