The federal Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse--a central repository for drug/alcohol testing data for CDL drivers--has now been in place for more than three years. As we addressed in another article, the Clearinghouse's three-year anniversary in January 2023 brought with it changes to the process that motor carriers must follow when first onboarding CDL drivers. But even more recently, in mid-March, the FMCSA overhauled the way that its Clearinghouse notifies employers (i.e., motor carriers) of any changes to their drivers' status after having run a required query. That's what we're breaking down in this article.
Understanding Clearinghouse Queries
Before diving into the recent changes, it's important to first understand how the Clearinghouse functions at a basic level. As noted, the Clearinghouse is a repository of drug/alcohol testing data for all CDL drivers operating in the U.S. The Clearinghouse functions through regulatory reporting and querying obligations. Information concerning a commercial driver's positive test result, refusal to test or other violation gets reported to the Clearinghouse and associated with the driver's CDL number. That information then appears in any queries run by subsequent employers during the hiring process, by law enforcement during roadside inspections, and by state drivers' licensing agencies when issuing or renewing the driver's CDL.
For their part, motor carriers have an obligation to run two different types of Clearinghouse queries on any CDL drivers they employ or engage:
Full (Pre-Employment) Queries: Reveal the nature of any prior drug or alcohol testing violations for a particular driver and whether the driver has completed the return-to-duty process. Employers are obligated to run full queries as part of the onboarding process for prospective CDL drivers, as well as in situations where a limited query on a particular driver reveals that information exists in the Clearinghouse. Drivers and prospective drivers must grant the employer specific consent to run a full query, which consent must be given by the driver through his/her Clearinghouse account. If a full query reveals that a driver has a prior drug or alcohol testing violation and the driver has not completed the return-to-duty process, the driver must not be used to perform any safety-sensitive functions.
Limited (Annual) Queries: Reveal only if information about a particular CDL driver exists in the Clearinghouse, not the substance of that information. Employers are obligated to run limited queries on all existing CDL drivers at least once every 12 months. Drivers must provide the employer their written consent to run limited queries, which consent is obtained outside the Clearinghouse and can take the form of a general consent to all limited queries run throughout the course of the drivers' employment. If a limited query reveals that information about a particular driver exists within the Clearinghouse, the employer must then run a full query on that driver within 24 hours. If that full query is not run within that time frame, the driver must be removed from safety-sensitive functions.
Sample Query Result
Prior to March 2023, the Clearinghouse did very little to automatically notify employers when the status of their drivers changed. For example, if a motor carrier ran a limited query on a driver on January 3rd that indicated the driver was "not prohibited" from driving but that driver was subsequently put into prohibited status the next day on January 4th, the Clearinghouse would not alert the carrier to that change in status. This was a problem because it meant that carriers were potentially blind to the fact that some of their drivers may be in prohibited status unless and until (1) the drivers specifically notified them of that fact; or (2) the carrier ran a subsequent query, which may not happen for another 12 months.
The lone exception to this was with the full pre-employment queries, which, even prior to the changes in March 2023, had a 30 day tail to them. This meant that if a driver's Clearinghouse status changed within 30 days after an employer ran a full pre-employment query, that carrier would receive an automatic notification about that status change. But again, that only occurred if the status change occurred within the first 30 days after the initial pre-employment query.
To address these gaps, the FMCSA recently overhauled the Clearinghouse notifications. Now, employers will receive automatic notifications anytime a driver's status changes within a full 12 months after the employers have run either a full or limited query.
FMCSA announcement on changes to notifications
Importantly, these types of Clearinghouse notifications indicate only that a driver's status has changed. They do NOT indicate the nature of the change. For that reason, once a carrier receives a status-change notification, it must run a follow-on full query to get the underlying details about the status change. According to FMCSA, such follow-on queries must be run within 24 hours after the carrier receives the status-change notifications, or else the driver must be removed from safety-sensitive functions (i.e., driving).
Example status-change notification
FMCSA's revisions to the Clearinghouse's notification system are significant because they fill gaps that existed in the system and allowed prohibited drivers to slip through the cracks. For more information about these types of regulatory topics, be sure to check out our online compliance courses for safety managers and drivers through our Trucksafe Academy. And if you need more hands-on assistance with DOT compliance, please feel free to contact us.
About Trucksafe Consulting, LLC: Trucksafe Consulting is a full-service DOT regulatory compliance consulting and training service. We help carriers develop, implement, and improve their safety programs, through personalized services, industry-leading training, and a library of educational content. Trucksafe also hosts a monthly live show on its various social media channels called Trucksafe LIVE! to discuss hot-button issues impacting highway transportation. Trucksafe is owned and operated by Brandon Wiseman and Jerad Childress, transportation attorneys who have assisted some of the nation’s leading fleets to develop and maintain cutting-edge safety programs. You can learn more about Trucksafe online at www.trucksafe.com and by following Trucksafe on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.