The Department of Transportation is the federal agency responsible for protecting the traveling public and keeping the country's transportation system safe. One way the DOT accomplishes its mission is by ensuring that transportation employees in safety-sensitive positions – such as the operators of planes, trains and buses – are not using drugs or alcohol on the job. “DOT compliance” means that the employer of safety-sensitive employees is maintaining the required employee drug and alcohol testing programs.
Airline pilots, cruise captains, truck drivers, bus drivers, train conductors and subway operators are all responsible for the safety of large numbers of people inside their vehicles and in the surrounding areas. The DOT calls these workers safety-sensitive employees. The employers of safety-sensitive employees are required by federal law to have DOT-compliant drug and alcohol-testing programs in place and regularly test their workers to make sure they can safely do their jobs.
DOT Drug Testing
Federal regulations require employers of safety-sensitive workers to test for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamine, phencyclidine – more commonly known as PCP – and opiates such as codeine, heroin and morphine. The rules allow safety-sensitive employees to take over-the-counter and prescription medications as long as a doctor says doing so will not impair their abilities to perform their jobs safely.
Read More: What Is a Non DOT Drug Test?
Drug Testing Frequency
Testing typically occurs before a company hires a new employee, after an accident, if there are signs that an employee is under the influence of alcohol or drugs and after an employee returns from leave due to a drug- or alcohol-related rule violation. Employers also randomly test safety-sensitive employees for drugs and alcohol use even if they do not show signs of being under the influence.
Why Random Testing Is Allowed
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution does not allow searches in the absence of probable cause, including testing employees for drugs and alcohol if there is no reason to believe they are under the influence. The rule is different for safety-sensitive employees because federal law regards the safety of the public as more important than an employee’s individual privacy interests. For example, it is more important to prevent a drunk airline pilot from being at the controls than it is to protect his privacy by waiting for objective symptoms of alcohol use before administering a test. The bottom-line is that if someone wants to fly a passenger plane, transport flammable chemicals or guide a speeding locomotive for a living, he must agree to give up some personal rights for the good of the public.
Alcohol Testing Protocol
A screening or breath alcohol technician administers a DOT alcohol test. If the initial screening determines less than .02 alcohol concentration, no further testing is required and no DOT action is taken. If .02 or higher concentration is present at screening, then a breath-testing device, or breathalyzer, must be used for a confirmation test. Depending on the confirmation testing results, no further action may be taken by DOT, the employee may temporarily be taken off duty, or may be immediately removed from safety-sensitive duties.
- United States Department of Transportation Drug and Alcohol Testing: Why This Program Is Important
- United States Department of Transportation Office of Drug & Alcohol Policy & Compliance: What Employees Need to Know about DOT Drug & Alcohol Testing
- Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute: Fourth Amendment
- National Workrights Institute: Public Employee Drug Testing: A Legal Guide
- United States Department of Transportation, Mission: Our Administrations
- United States Department of Transportation, Office of the Historian: A Brief History
- Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute: 49 CFR Part 40
- Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute: 49 CFR 40.1 – Who Does this Regulation Cover?
- Transportation.gov: What Employees Need to Know About Drug and Alcohol Testing
An attorney for more than 20 years, Cara O'Neill currently practices in the areas of civil litigation, family law and bankruptcy. She also served as an Administrative Law Judge and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of employment law, business law and criminal law for a well-known university. Attending the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, she graduated a National member of the Order of the Barristers - an honor society recognizing excellence in courtroom advocacy. She is currently licensed in the state of California.