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Late Nights, Long Drives, and Too Much Speed

New research on the why and when of truckers abusing drugs.


Driving under the influence of any drug, anywhere, is no joke. Alcohol and weed slow a driver’s reaction time, and speed and coke can impair a driver’s judgment in all sorts of ways—not least of which by only temporarily masking fatal levels of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. But when an impaired driver happens to be behind the wheel of, say, a 100,000-pound semi, that pushes the danger to another level.

Unfortunately, drug and alcohol abuse in the trucking industry is all too common, and a new study in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine sought to find out why. The authors of the study, led by Edmarlon Girotto of the State University of Londrina in Brazil, analyzed data from 36 surveys and drug tests administered since 2000 in countries with long-haul trucking, like Australia, the U.S., and Brazil.

According to their research, the most frequent substance that truck drivers have been using and abusing are alcohol, amphetamines, cannabis, and cocaine. The truckers that are at the greatest risk for drug abuse are younger drivers, and those who are taking longer trips later at night.

In 2010, approximately 80,000 people were injured in crashes involving large trucks, and another 3,675 people were killed.

The drivers whose pay rate is determined by their productivity were also more likely to use drugs—which makes sense: If you’ll make more money by getting your cargo to its destination faster, you’re more likely to think it’s worth it to skip necessary hours of sleep, and you might therefore be more likely to need some (illegal and ill-advised) help staying awake.

It’s an incredibly dangerous combination of factors, not just for the truckers but for everyone on the road as well. The authors of the study argue that it is imperative that everyone involved in the trucking industry be aware of this problem and work to resolve it. "Psychoactive substances have been proved to impair driving and cause a greater risk of traffic accidents," the authors write. "Therefore gas stations, trucker stops and companies that employ these professionals must be more closely observed regarding the sale and consumption of these substances."

In an editorial based on the study, Allard van der Beek of VU University in Amsterdam writes that low pay and extremely long hours have increasingly become the norm in the trucking industry. “Both road transport companies and truck drivers benefit financially from these long working hours,” writes van der Beek.

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According to the latest data analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2010, approximately 80,000 people were injured in crashes involving large trucks, and another 3,675 people were killed. Of those fatalities, 14 percent of them were drivers or passengers of the trucks, and 86 percent were other drivers on the road. The latest "Large Truck Crash Causation Study" by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that, in crashes involving large trucks, driver behavior was 10 times more likely to be at fault than other factors like bad weather or road conditions. At the conclusion of the study the FMCSA pledged to conduct more analysis on certain driver-behavior factors, including the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

As van der Beek writes, it may be that the methods of the business are so ingrained that changing the entire culture will be an uphill battle. But if not now, when?