WASHINGTON — Undercover federal investigators discovered that it was surprisingly easy to cheat on random drug tests designed to catch truck drivers who use drugs, NBC News has learned.
Undercover investigators with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, used bogus truck driver’s licenses to gain access to 24 drug-testing sites. They found that 75 percent “failed to restrict access to items that could be used to adulterate or dilute the [urine] specimen, meaning that running water, soap, or air freshener was available in the bathroom during the test.”
The GAO team also bought drug-masking products over the Web and was able to mix them with real specimens at the drug-testing sites “without being caught by site collectors,” the agency said in a report scheduled to be made public Thursday.
Drug-screening labs never realized that there was a problem. “Every drug masking product went undetected by the drug screening labs,” said the report, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News.
DOT cites drop in road deaths
A spokeswoman for the Transportation Department, which requires motor carriers to test their employees and sets the regulations for collections, said driver errors, not drug use, caused most accidents.
“Our efforts on this front have been critical in helping us reduce the number of large truck fatalities by nearly 5 percent last year — the largest decline in four years,” said the spokeswoman.
But Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who asked GAO to investigate, said the report was “frankly astonishing and shocking and dismaying. You can manipulate the tests, you can mask substance abuse and go undetected on the roadways.”
Oberstar, who planned to hold a hearing Thursday, said the drug-testing system was broken and was placing other drivers in danger.
“It fails, it is not sufficient, it is not protecting the public interest,” he said.
How many are cheating?
The Transportation Department estimates that fewer than 2 percent of truck drivers test positive each year for controlled substances in random federal tests. But when Oregon law enforcement officials conducted their own random tests this year, 9 percent of truck drivers tested positive.
Dozens of products widely available on the Web are marketed to truckers as fail-safe ways to defeat the mandatory drug tests.
“My first reaction was total disbelief. I just felt sick,” said Kathleen Ellsbury, whose husband, Tony Qamar, was killed two years ago when a truck driver in Washington state lost his load of logs on a curve, crushing the car he was riding in. Also killed was Qamar’s colleague, Daniel Johnson, who was driving the car.
Ellsbury learned later that the truck driver, who was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for vehicular homicide, had previously been convicted of possessing methamphetamines and had meth in his blood at the time of the crash.
“The system has big holes, let’s say that,” said Ellsbury, who said she had a message for truck drivers who might be tempted to cheat: “I’d like to be standing right outside the bathroom and hold up a picture of my husband — remind them there's consequences.”
Truckers promise to do better
Spokesmen for the trucking industry said truck drivers were among the safest drivers on the road, with much lower rates of drug use than the general population. Still, they said, having roughly 30,000 drivers test positive each year was unacceptable.
Transportation Department spokeswoman Melissa Delaney, while blaming “commercial and passenger driver errors” for most highway deaths, said the department was continuing to “work with our state law enforcement partners to aggressively ensure trucking companies comply with our regulations, including drug and alcohol enforcement.”
“In 2006 alone, this combined federal and state effort led to more than 5,000 enforcement cases that resulted in more than $19 million in fines and 1,035 companies being taken out of service,” she said.
Lisa Myers is chief investigative correspondent and Richard Gardella is an investigative producer for NBC News.