CDL Drug Test Failure & Return-to-Duty Process

One of the most stringent standards that CDL holders must comply with is regular drug testing to ensure they are abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

Avoiding these substances is the best way to prevent career-threatening consequences. There is a standard return-to-duty process for those who fail a DOT drug test. However, completing this program does not guarantee that anyone will hire you. The companies themselves still make that decision.

A primary factor will be the decisions of the Substance Abuse Professionals (SAPs) that works with the driver. The SAP is the primary decision point (and, in some cases, the only decision point) for an employer. SAPs play a large part in a company's choice of whether or not to place an employee behind the steering wheel of a tractor-trailer, in the cockpit of a plane, or in any safety-related role.

When Must a CDL Driver Submit to Drug or Alcohol Testing?

Random drug and alcohol screening is a Federal requirement in the trucking industry. In addition to random testing, drivers may be tested at any of the following times or circumstances:

  • Pre-employment
  • Post-accident
  • Return to duty after a failed test
  • For reasonable suspicion
  • Following up after return-to-duty

What Happens After You Give a Sample for Drugs or Alcohol?

They will split the sample you've provided into two parts, "A" & "B." This is for quality control purposes. Laboratory staff will check to ensure the sample is not flawed or contaminated.

First, they will only test the "A" sample. Then, if the test is positive, they will perform another test using a different method. (Samples are stored for at least 12 months.)

Findings from the tests will be reported to the Medical Review Officer (MRO). The Medical Review Officer (MRO) will review the paperwork and, in the case of a negative result, will inform the employer.

In the case of a positive result, the MRO will interview the employee to determine if a legitimate medical reason exists for the positive result. If they find a valid medical reason for the positive test, the MRO will report a "negative" result to the employer. Otherwise, you will have 72 hours to request a test on the "B" sample from another certified lab.

What Happens If You Fail or Refuse a DOT Drug or Alcohol Test?

Many are under the mistaken impression that the best way to avoid a substance screening is to refuse to take one. Do not do this. Anyone who refuses a DOT drug or alcohol test will be subject to the following procedures:

  • They will remove you immediately from any DOT-related safety-sensitive functions.
  • You will not be allowed to return to those duties until you have:
    • Been evaluated by a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP)
    • Completed any treatment, counseling, or education directed by the SAP
    • Provided a negative drug or alcohol test

When you do return to a DOT-related safety-sensitive position, you will be subject to unannounced testing for drugs and/or alcohol at LEAST 6 times during the next 12 months, and—depending on the evaluation of the SAP—you could be subject to this testing for up to 60 months.

What is an SAP?

SAPs are substance abuse professionals who will evaluate employees that have failed a DOT drug or alcohol test. These professionals meet with the employee and make recommendations concerning treatment, education, follow-up testing, and other aftercare matters.

SAPs must be licensed employee assistance professionals. They are often physicians, though SAPs can also be social workers, psychologists, substance abuse counselors, or other licensed employee assistance professionals.

SAPs must also have specific knowledge of how their role relates to the particular responsibilities that employers have for ensuring the safety of the traveling public. An SAP must also have mastery of 49 CFR Part 40 (the regulations for workplace drug testing), other pertinent DOT agency regulations, and SAP guidelines.

What Role Does an SAP Play in the Return-to-Duty Process?

The SAP will conduct the clinical evaluation. This face-to-face session helps the SAP determine what help the employee may need in dealing with drugs or alcohol. After doing so, the SAP will refer the employee to the proper sources for treatment. Follow-up interviews are conducted to make sure that the program is working as intended and that the driver is complying with all aspects of treatment.

The SAP will also provide employers with a follow-up screening regimen and recommendations to both employer and employee for continued treatment and education. An employer cannot require more stringent testing than the SAP has outlined in their continuing treatment plan.

How Can You Return to Trucking If You Fail a Drug or Alcohol Screening?

A return to trucking after a failed DOT drug or alcohol test can be difficult, if not impossible. Due to various reasons, such as insurance liability, many companies will be hesitant to offer employment with such a black mark on your driving history. Be prepared for additional testing with more rigorous drug testing methods such as hair follicle testing. Hair follicle tests can show positive results for narcotics going back 90 days or more.

The return-to-duty procedure is as follows:

  • 1. Have an initial evaluation by an SAP
  • 2. Follow all courses of recommendation as laid out by the SAP
  • 3. Examples of treatment may include in-patient hospitalization, outpatient programs, drug and alcohol education courses, one-on-one counseling, and the use of organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
  • 4. After completing the treatment plan, the original SAP will reevaluate the employee for progress.
  • 5. After a final successful meeting, the SAP will provide a "report of compliance." The employee must provide this report to all current or future employers.
  • 6. If you fail any of the above steps or the return-to-duty drug and alcohol test, you must start the entire process.
  • 7. Follow-up testing will consist of at least six random screenings in the first 12 months and up to 48 months of additional testing required by the SAP.

You will find an overview of the return-to-duty process on the Department of Transportations website.

What Do You Need to Know About the Return-to-Duty Process?

After an employee fails a drug or alcohol test and is removed from service, the employer must next provide the employee or applicant a list of readily available SAPs at no charge. This list will include names, addresses, and phone numbers.

However, employers are not required to provide or pay for the SAP evaluation and subsequent treatment. Payment of such services is left solely up to the decisions of employers and employees.

Drivers will have to stick with the same SAP they used initially. There are no second opinions, and they must complete the process with a single SAP. The SAP's decisions and recommendations will be treated as final for all intents and purposes.

It is the driver's responsibility to pay for the SAP's services, which is between the driver and the SAP.

Scheduling and dates of follow-up testing are up to the employer, not the SAP.

Must Employers Be Informed About Failed Drug or Alcohol Tests and the Return-to-Duty process?

Because they perform safety-sensitive duties, CDL drivers must inform potential employers of any failed tests.

Will a failed drug test show up on my DAC report? And how will a new employer know that I failed a test?

Your DAC report is a record of your employment history. A firm called HireRight is responsible for maintaining the DAC report. Trucking companies use this data to find new drivers.

According to HireRight, the DAC reports contain: "Drug and alcohol history and pre-employment drug test results for commercial drivers that can be accessed instantly from our database of more than 4 million records."

In short, if a trucking company reports employment information to HireRight, and most do, it will show up on a driver's DAC report. All employers, including potential employers, must report failed DOT drug and alcohol testing information yearly. In addition, potential employers must request drug and alcohol testing information from previous employers.

Potential employers will ask you about previously failed drug tests or return-to-duty obligations.

The bottom line is that your new employer will find out about your previous test failures.

Straight From the Trucker's Mouth: Trucking Truth Forum Stories

Old School from Nacogdoches, Texas, on taking pre-employment drug tests seriously:

"Many trucking companies are implementing a hair follicle test into their screening process now. If you fail a drug test, you will be done - your career [is] stillborn. This business almost never allows a second chance when it comes to failed drug screenings. It is critical that you get that part right."

G-Town from Lewes, Delaware on random screenings:

"Many times, a test will be required after a period of home time. Be very careful who you hang out with. Inhalation of secondary pot smoke can possibly cause a positive result. At that point: game over."

LDRSHIP from Clarksville, Tennessee on the lifestyle of the career:

"…. little luxuries of spontaneous choices will not exist. This profession is federally governed and monitored. There is zero tolerance and zero wiggle room. Those who fail to play it straight risk their career, their future, [and] even their freedom."

Sources to Incorporate:

Dept. of Transportation Definition of SAP

Dept. of Transportation Return-to-Duty Guidelines

49 CFR Part 40 (Government drug testing procedures)

SAP Guidelines


Commercial Driver's License (CDL)

A CDL is required to drive any of the following vehicles:

  • Any combination of vehicles with a gross combined weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 or more pounds, providing the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of the vehicle being towed is in excess of 10,000 pounds.
  • Any single vehicle with a GVWR of 26,001 or more pounds, or any such vehicle towing another not in excess of 10,000 pounds.
  • Any vehicle, regardless of size, designed to transport 16 or more persons, including the driver.
  • Any vehicle required by federal regulations to be placarded while transporting hazardous materials.


Substance Abuse Professional

The Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) is a person who evaluates employees who have violated a DOT drug and alcohol program regulation and makes recommendations concerning education, treatment, follow-up testing, and aftercare.


Department Of Transportation

A department of the federal executive branch responsible for the national highways and for railroad and airline safety. It also manages Amtrak, the national railroad system, and the Coast Guard.

State and Federal DOT Officers are responsible for commercial vehicle enforcement. "The truck police" you could call them.


Body mass index (BMI)

BMI is a formula that uses weight and height to estimate body fat. For most people, BMI provides a reasonable estimate of body fat. The BMI's biggest weakness is that it doesn't consider individual factors such as bone or muscle mass. BMI may:

  • Underestimate body fat for older adults or other people with low muscle mass
  • Overestimate body fat for people who are very muscular and physically fit

It's quite common, especially for men, to fall into the "overweight" category if you happen to be stronger than average. If you're pretty strong but in good shape then pay no attention.


Drive-A-Check Report

A truck drivers DAC report will contain detailed information about their job history of the last 10 years as a CDL driver (as required by the DOT).

It may also contain your criminal history, drug test results, DOT infractions and accident history. The program is strictly voluntary from a company standpoint, but most of the medium-to-large carriers will participate.

Most trucking companies use DAC reports as part of their hiring and background check process. It is extremely important that drivers verify that the information contained in it is correct, and have it fixed if it's not.


Hours Of Service

HOS refers to the logbook hours of service regulations.


Operating While Intoxicated

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