top of page

Could your DOT safety program use some help?

Trucksafe Consulting, LLC is a full-service transportation safety consulting company, offering both one-on-one consulting services and a library of on-demand training resources and compliance documents. Let us help you build and manage a robust safety program!

About the Authors

Trucksafe's President Brandon Wiseman and Vice President Jerad Childress are transportation attorneys who have represented and advised hundreds of motor carriers (both large and small) on DOT regulatory compliance. Brandon and Jerad are regular speakers at industry events and routinely contribute to industry publications. They are devoted to helping carriers develop state-of-the-art safety programs, through personalized consulting services and relevant training resources. 


Ditch the Books! 

eRegs is the first app-based digitial version of the FMCSRs, helping fleets and their drivers better access and understand their regulatory obligations. 

Trucksafe Academy Ad copy 2.jpg

How drivers return to duty following a drug or alcohol violation

Updated: May 20

As of February 2024, there are over 163,000 CDL drivers in so-called “prohibited status” in the FMCSA’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, meaning they are prohibited from operating commercial vehicles due to a drug or alcohol violation. Of those 163,000+ drivers, 76% have not even started the regulatory process through which they could get back to driving. That process, known as return-to-duty (RTD), is meant to rehabilitate drivers through evaluation, education, and follow-up testing. It’s what we’re discussing in this article.

Feb 2024 Clearinghouse Data

Who is subject to DOT drug & alcohol testing?

Before we dive into the RTD process specifically, let’s first discuss who exactly is subject to DOT drug & alcohol testing. If you’re even the least bit entrenched in trucking, you’ll likely know that as a general proposition, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations apply to those who operate commercial motor vehicles or CMVs for short in interstate commerce. That term, “commercial motor vehicle,” is, therefore, the lynch pin in determining whether the rules apply.

Since nothing is ever easy, the regulations define that term a couple of different ways. The first is in 49 CFR 390.5, which dictates the applicability for the vast majority of the federal safety regulations, including things like driver qualification, hours-of-service, and vehicle maintenance. But, there’s a more specific definition of that same term that’s contained within Part 383 of the safety regulations and applies only in the contexts of commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) and drug/alcohol testing. This latter definition is more narrow and so it encompasses a smaller group of commercial drivers, meaning the CDL and the drug/alcohol testing requirements apply to a smaller category of drivers than most of the other rules contained within the federal safety regulation.

So which drivers are encompassed within the CDL and the drug/alcohol testing requirements? Well, looking at 49 CFR 382.103, we’ll see that the drug/alcohol testing rules apply to “every person and to all employers of such persons who operate a CMV in commerce in any State and are subject to” the CDL requirement in Part 383, or the equivalent licensing requirements in Mexico or Canada. Alright, so with that in mind, who exactly requires a CDL in the U.S.?

The CDL requirement in Part 383 applies to those who operate a CMV, which is defined in Part 383 to mean: A motor vehicle or combination of motor vehicles used in commerce to transport passengers or property if the motor vehicle is a— (1) a combination vehicle having a gross combination weight rating or gross combination weight of 26,001 pounds or more, whichever is greater, inclusive of a towed unit(s) with a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of more than 10,000 pounds, whichever is greater. So this first category of vehicles encompasses larger combination units of a truck and trailer, where the trailer itself weighs more than 10,000 lbs., and the combination of the truck and trailer exceeds 26,000 lbs. A tractor-trailer is the quintessential example of a combination that falls within this category, but it can also encompass larger pickup truck and trailer combinations. Next up in the category of vehicles that require a CDL and whose drivers are subject to drug/alcohol testing are heavy straight vehicles having a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of 26,001 pounds or more, such as a large box truck, dump truck, or garbage truck. And the last group of vehicles are those that don’t fall within either of the two groups that we just mentioned, meaning they don’t weigh more than 26,000 lbs., but that either are designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers, including the driver, or are of any size and used to transport placardable quantities of hazardous materials.

Simply stated, if you operate a vehicle or combination that exceeds 26,000 lbs., is used to transport 16 or more passengers, or is hauling a placardable quantity of hazmat in commerce, you most likely need a CDL and are subject to DOT drug & alcohol testing.

What happens if a driver violates the drug & alcohol rules?

Part 382 of the federal safety regulations spells out various types of conduct that amount to violations of the rules contained within it. Testing positive for drugs or alcohol on a DOT test is certainly a violation, but so is refusing a required test and unlawfully possessing drugs or alcohol. But what happens to a driver when they commit such a violation?

Step 1: Driver is removed from safety-sensitive functions.

First thing’s first…per Part 382, the instant a motor carrier is made aware of a driver’s violation of the drug & alcohol testing rules, they must immediately remove them from performing “safety-sensitive functions” (i.e., driving). From there, the driver remains prohibited from performing safety-sensitive functions until they complete the RTD process.

At this point, the employing motor carrier is also required to provide the driver with a list of Substance Abuse Professionals that they can contact to kick off the RTD process. But that ends the carrier’s regulatory responsibilities, assuming it chooses to part ways with the driver at this point, which is fairly common.  

Step 2: Driver participates in and completes SAP treatment program.

Drivers who wish to return to duty following a drug or alcohol violation must first visit with an SAP. The SAP will evaluate the driver and make recommendations concerning education, treatment, follow-up testing, and aftercare. Once the education and/or treatment is completed to the SAP’s satisfaction, the SAP will prepare a report and prescribe a series of unannounced and observed follow-up tests over the course of the next 1 to 5 years. More specifically, the rules require the SAP to prescribe at least 6 unannounced and observed follow-up tests to be completed within the first 12 months, but they give the SAP discretion to require follow-up testing for up to 5 years, which is common.

Step 3: Driver passes a RTD drug and/or alcohol test.

Once a driver has completed the SAP process, they must pass a RTD drug and/or alcohol test to commence commercial driving activities. Per FMCSA guidance, a DOT return-to-duty test administered by a new employer can also serve as the driver's pre-employment test, assuming the driver is having to find new employment because of the violation. And assuming the driver passes that test, they are cleared to begin operating, but remain subject to the follow-up testing schedule prescribed by the SAP. At this point, the driver’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse record should reflect that they have passed the required RTD test and are no longer prohibited from operating.

Step 4: Driver & employer are subject to follow-up testing.

The important part here is that carriers who engage drivers who are subject to a follow-up testing schedule must strictly adhere to that schedule and ensure the driver completes all of the required tests. Otherwise, the driver will once again be in violation of the drug/alcohol testing rules, as will their employer. Once the driver completes all required follow-up tests, the RTD process is complete.


In short, the regulations set out a multi-step path for drivers to return to the seat after violating the drug & alcohol testing rules. That path involves an education/rehabilitation program through an SAP as well as follow-up drug and/or alcohol testing. Failing to follow that process can result in serious violations.

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 livestream podcast 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've assisted some of the nation’s leading fleets to develop and maintain cutting-edge safety programs. You can learn more about Trucksafe online at and by following Trucksafe on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Or subscribe to Trucksafe's newsletter for the latest highway transportation news & analysis.


bottom of page