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Tractor-trailer trucks are huge machines – and pose a huge danger in the event of an accident. These big rigs weigh on average from around 12,000 pounds up to 80,000 pounds or more. A fully loaded semi traveling at 55 mph will take at least the length of a football field to stop.

There can be little doubt that it takes a serious amount of skill and training to operate a tractor-trailer.

Just think of the danger of a driver whose skills – no matter how good – are impaired by alcohol or drugs.

The story of a recent fatal accident in central Indiana brings to mind several questions about this issue. In this incident, the semi driver refused a breath test after the wreck, in which his truck crashed into a van. The driver of the van was killed instantly, and two passengers were injured.

The truck driver was arrested on preliminary charges of felony criminal recklessness with a motor vehicle causing death, and misdemeanor false informing. Police said they think he falsified his logbook or lied about it when questioned. A prosecutor said there may be an additional charge of involuntary manslaughter with a vehicle.

In an odd twist, the driver was almost prosecuted for three motor safety infractions, which could have made it impossible to prosecute him on the more serious criminal charges because of double jeopardy provisions of Indiana law.

A collision with a big rig is especially likely to be deadly. Of the 37,261 people killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2008, 11 percent (4,229) died in crashes that involved a large truck, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Only 16 percent of those killed were the occupants of large trucks.

(Note: A “large truck” is defined as a truck with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds. Truck tractors pulling semi-trailers accounted for 62 percent of the large trucks involved in fatal crashes. In fact, tractor trailer accidents account for an eighth of all traffic fatalities.)

The FMCSA reported that 2 percent of the large truck operators in fatal crashes were legally intoxicated. Three percent of drivers had some alcohol in their bloodstream.

In 15 percent of the fatal crashes, adverse weather conditions were reported, rain being the most common condition involved.

But how are commercial drivers compelled not to drive while impaired?

Testing for substance abuse generally comes into play when a driver is hired. Any person who holds a commercial driver’s license (CDL) is considered to have consented to such testing as required by the state.

All commercial motor vehicle employers in the United States are required by federal law to implement testing of drivers for both controlled substances and alcohol, or make sure the driver had undergone testing. (This link provides information about testing in Indiana.) Every state is required to at least meet the federal guidelines. States may require more stringent testing.

The required tests fall into six categories:

  • Pre-employment
  • Post-accident
  • Random
  • Reasonable suspicion
  • Return-to-duty
  • Follow-up

The front lines of defense for preventing substance-abuse-related accidents are the pre-employment, random and reasonable-suspicion testing.

Pre-employment testing for controlled substances is required for all employees before they drive. Employers may conducting alcohol testing, but they aren’t required to.

The minimum annual percentage rate for random alcohol testing must be 10 percent of the average number of driver positions at the company. For controlled substances, random tests must be given to 50 percent of the drivers. Tests for alcohol must be given just before, during or just after the employee is performing his job.

Reasonable-suspicion testing is called for based on observations of appearance, behavior, speech, body odors, or indications of chronic or withdrawal effects.

The code of federal regulations on testing is extensive and very specific, running something over 10,000 words. Commercial vehicle employers are given explicit guidelines, and the commercially licensed drivers of tractor-trailer rigs are well aware of them. Both parties must always be held accountable for following the rules.

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