High-Minded Safety to Combat Drugged Driving

Written By: Jimmy Haines

A number of studies released over the past three years report marijuana and prescription drug use is increasingly prevalent on U.S. highways, including a 2014 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) survey in which 20 percent of drivers tested positive for at least one drug that could impair their ability to operate a vehicle safely. Since that survey, marijuana legalization has been sweeping across the country, and opioid use and abuse has developed into a national epidemic, suggesting the “drugged driving” trend is likely far more widespread.


The implications for fleet operators are obvious, but the solution for addressing the problem is not always clear-cut. While federal regulations for alcohol and substance use and testing for truck drivers are well defined, laws regarding drug-impaired driving vary from state to state for drivers that do not fall into that commercial category. Then, there is the shift in our national culture that has resulted in recreational marijuana use becoming not only more socially acceptable but actually legal in many states, which may give drivers the sense that it is okay to partake.

A zero-tolerance corporate policy is very often the go-to approach, but clearly establishing and enforcing that policy involves a lot of moving parts. To start, it is a good idea to know the laws in the different states in which drivers operate because even a zero-tolerance policy should be created with the understanding of what laws it may override. Consider the complexity surrounding legal use when drug testing is part of the policy. Trace amounts of marijuana can show up in a drug test weeks after consumption, so while a driver may never have operated a company vehicle under the influence, testing positive is a violation even if he or she has a legal right to recreational use. To complicate things further, some states are now taking up legislation to protect employees from being terminated for medical marijuana usage.


Although marijuana remains illegal on a federal level, 43 states have approved medical marijuana use for qualifying conditions. That list of conditions varies greatly from state to state and may include HIV, cancer, glaucoma, hepatitis, and even post-traumatic stress disorder, while some states only allow terminally ill patients to use cannabis legally. When you overlap states that have approved some measure of medical and/or recreational use, only three continue to outlaw marijuana entirely — Idaho, Kansas, and South Dakota. Regardless, it is a controlled substance no matter where you are, and driving under the influence is illegal. Any driver that is pulled over or involved in a crash may be tested by law enforcement either through a field sobriety exam or blood test. They can be cited for driving under the influence or arrested. If that happens, a medical marijuana license will not be a get-out-of-jail-free card.


A defined driver safety policy that explicitly covers drug use has to consider a wide range of scenarios, and implementing it should include training so drivers understand that even though it may be legal to use, it is never legal to operate a vehicle under the influence of any substance that affects their ability to do so safely.

Drivers need to be made aware that the organization’s safe-driving policy supersedes state laws regarding recreational consumption, under what circumstances drug testing may be administered, and what actions the company will take should violations occur.


Each year, across the U.S., physicians issue more than 300,000 prescriptions for opioid medications. There are many other types of medications beyond cannabis and opioid-based treatment that affect driving ability. Having a written procedure in place for employees returning to work after an injury or illness should be supportive and provide the means to disclose any ongoing treatment involving medication. It may involve giving the employee an administrative role until it is safe for them to be back behind the wheel. Having someone supervise their driving to make sure they can operate a vehicle safely is also a good practice, as is requiring a written clearance by a physician.


The key focus of any drug-related policy is to be proactive instead of reactive. Management’s priority is to set practices and protocols that protect the organization and provide employees with a very clear understanding of those policies, including what will happen should they violate them. If there is an at-fault accident, was the employee clear-headed or not? Will they be tested? After one offense, will they be randomly monitored? What happens after a second offense, etc.? If the fleet uses telematics, will erratic driving alerts trigger any kind of action?

Ideally, any drug policy is a piece of a larger safety-minded culture. Part of that culture could be rewards and/or incentives for keeping vehicles in good condition and accumulating safe driving points. With today’s integrated fleet telematics, managers can monitor and analyze trends to create incentive programs and recognize drivers that are meeting or exceeding goals for safe and efficient operation. Creating an environment where employees are comfortable having an open dialogue because they feel supported tends to be more effective than one in which they fear repercussions.

The prevalence of both legal and illegal drug usage is not likely to abate anytime soon. Policy and culture combined with ongoing analysis of driving trends across a fleet provide a positive platform for both heading off potential problems and addressing them when they do arise. Merchants Fleet Management helps fleet managers develop programs specific to their operations. If you would like to discuss what Merchants Fleet Management can do for you and your fleet, contact:

* Merchants Fleet does not provide legal advice. Please check with an attorney and/or HR specialist regarding employee agreements and corporate policy.

August 2017, By Emily Candib- Assistant Director Product Management at Merchants Fleet

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