Transporting goods across the endless network of America’s roads is crucial to economic development. Over three million truck drivers travel U.S. roadways, sharing the burden as the main agents of transport.
The stress of the trucking lifestyle, however, often worsens and enables substance use and various mental health conditions. In many cases, substance use appears to be a coping mechanism for demanding work hours, intense deadlines and the lonely life on the road.
To promote health and safety, the trucking industry must take preventative measures to curb problems with substance use and mental health faced by truck drivers. Wellness programs, stress reduction strategies, open lines of communication and information about mental health and addiction are crucial elements for preventing drug and alcohol use among truck drivers.
What We Know About Substance Abuse In Truck Drivers
There are few studies on the prevalence of substance use among truck drivers. Despite the importance of trucking and substance use to public health, more studies need to be done to fully understand the scope of the problem.
However, we know drug and alcohol use impacts many truck drivers. Over the course of a 13-year period (2000 to 2013), 36 studies were analyzed to better understand the issue of substance use within this population. Many of the studies included surveys at places like truck stops and events promoted for truck drivers.
Drug use was most associated in male truck drivers younger than 35 years old. These drivers had a history of counterproductive work behaviors, like stealing merchandise, not reporting lost or damaged goods and inadequate work performance. They also drove on interstate routes and reported sleeping for long or short periods of time.
Other significant findings from the analysis include:
- alcohol use was associated with younger ages, smoking, high-blood pressure and fewer hours of rest
- almost 30 percent of drivers self-reported amphetamine use
- amphetamine use was associated with longer driving hours and driving through the night
- over 50 percent of drivers self-reported alcohol use
- self-reported amphetamine use was higher in young truck drivers with higher income, longer hours and frequent alcohol use
- stimulants were often used by less experienced drivers
What Substances Do Truck Drivers Use?
Based on a collection of several studies, the most frequently reported substances truck drivers use are alcohol, stimulants like amphetamine and cocaine, marijuana and opioids.
- Alcohol – In terms of alcohol use, some research suggests truck drivers underestimate the amount of alcohol they consume when stopping off the road. Alcohol is both legal and widely available, and may be used by truck drivers to self-medicate stress or other emotional problems. Learn more about alcohol abuse.
- Stimulants (Amphetamine and Cocaine) – Cocaine and amphetamines are stimulants, which make people more alert and physically active. It’s well-known people take stimulants to stay awake on the job or study for exams, making it appealing for long-haul truck drivers who spend countless hours on the road.
- Marijuana – Marijuana is the most commonly abused substance in the US to date. The drug is becoming more acceptable and available, which likely makes it easy for truck drivers to obtain. Marijuana may help truck drivers cope with the solitude of the road, but the drug slows reaction times, alters the senses and impairs driving.
- Opioids – Opioids are responsible for over a hundred overdose deaths each day. These drugs range from prescription drugs to heroin and are highly addictive. For truck drivers, prescription drugs often top the list of the most abused substances. Learn more about opioid abuse.
Preventing Drug And Alcohol Use In Truck Drivers
Although numerous study findings suggest truck drivers suffer from substance abuse and a variety of mental health problems, the issues are often left untreated. Without treatment, these issues can lead to risky behaviors, addiction and highway accidents.
To help prevent the problem of substance use among truck drivers, the U.S. Department of Transportation mandates drug testing and other safety-sensitive regulations to keep truck drivers and other passenger vehicles safe on the road. Other preventative measures for substance abuse include stress reduction strategies and wellness programs.
Drug testing is required for all CDL level truck drivers by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Truck drivers are mandated to take a 5-panel drug test for marijuana, cocaine, opiates/opioids, PCP and amphetamine/methamphetamine.
Currently, drivers must take drug tests under the following circumstances:
- random testing
- reasonable suspicion
By 2020, a database will be created for all truck drivers who have failed drug or alcohol tests in the past. Carriers will be required to report this information to a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) database. The hope is to promote roadway safety and prevent truck drivers from moving on to a different position without further consequences for using drugs or alcohol on the job.
Safety-Sensitive Transportation Regulations
The DOT and FMCSA are also required to take measures that promote safety for truck drivers and the traveling public. These government departments mandate trucking employers do the following to reduce substance use among truck drivers:
- supervisors must attend at least one hour of training on the signs and symptoms of substance abuse
- truck drivers must have access to information on drug use and treatment services
- truck drivers who violate drug and alcohol policy must be referred to a substance abuse professional for evaluation
If a truck driver has been reprimanded for using drugs or alcohol while on the job, they must do the following before returning to work:
- comply with any recommendations for treating their problem with drugs or alcohol
- receive an evaluation from a substance abuse professional
- take a return-to-duty drug test and have a negative result
Stress Reduction Strategies
Work-related stress stems from the demands of the job, the ability to have control over making decisions and the amount of social support one receives in the workplace. Truck drivers struggle with these issues because of the nature of their occupation.
Stress is commonplace, but it’s how people deal with stress that can lead to problems. For truck drivers, learning how to reduce and manage stress can be crucial for healthy living and abstaining from using drugs and alcohol.
Stress can be reduced through:
- Better sleeping habits: Truck drivers need to pull over and actually sleep. With high demands and other occupational stressors, restful sleep can be hard to come by. Allow enough time for rest and sleep without interruption or worry.
- Stress reduction equipment: Truck drivers can have stress balls and other fidget devices nearby while driving. Stress balls, typically filled with beads or similar materials, fit easily in a person’s palm, strengthen arm and hand muscles, improve dexterity and relieve stress.
- Route planning: Even for truck drivers, taking the time to plan routes can reduce stress while on the road. Truck drivers recommend using a trucker road atlas to plan ahead for pick-up deliveries and appointments to limit worry about being late or getting lost.
- Breathing exercises: Breathing exercises are easy to do while driving and can provide immediate stress-relief.
- Meditation: Like breathing exercises, meditation is easy and time effective. It can both reduce stress levels and help truck drivers relax in a safe and healthy way.
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Wellness Programs And Strategies
Wellness programs and strategies can improve the overall quality of life for truck drivers. They often integrate the best of primary care, mental health and substance abuse services. The following strategies are easy to do, with or without professional help, and can strengthen habits and improve daily life:
- Follow a healthy lifestyle: Refrain from taking addictive substances and smoking cigarettes. Limit alcohol use and choose water or juice instead. Eat healthy foods and exercise at truck stops or other places along the road (walking or stretching is exercise). Keep track of weight, blood pressure and other health-related patterns to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
- Communicate with healthcare providers and supportive people: Communicating with employers, doctors and other healthcare professionals is key to maintaining wellness, even while on the road. Talking on the phone with supportive people, like other truck drivers or friends and family, can help the driver think positively and be more aware of how they’re feeling.
- Be vocal about wellness: Let supervisors know truck drivers care about their health and well-being. Look into company policy and determine what wellness efforts or programs are put-forth by the employer. Talk to them about screening and preventative measures for common mental health issues like depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.
- Education: Education is a crucial component for preventing substance abuse and addiction. Truck drivers need to be educated about the health and safety hazards of drinking and using drugs while on the job. Learning about addiction and substance abuse is often the best way to prevent it.
Why Do Truck Drivers Abuse Drugs or Alcohol?
It’s not entirely clear how the underlying components and mechanisms of driving within the trucking industry trigger or sustain the risk of drug and alcohol use, as well as other mental health problems.
However, research suggests truck drivers use alcohol, prescription drugs and other illicit substances to alleviate symptoms caused by occupational demands. These include:
- job strain
- social isolation
Long-haul trucking is a stressful profession with limited opportunities for healthy living. Truck drivers are often away from friends and family for long periods of time and experience the stressful trucking environment for weeks on end, becoming more exposed to numerous risk factors for addiction.
Risk Factors For Drug And Alcohol Use Among Truck Drivers
Risk factors for truck drivers go beyond biological and psychological factors, and should be addressed within the trucking environment. Truck driving is demanding work and the truck driving population is under served when it comes to mental health and substance use.
Risk factors for drug and alcohol use among truck drivers include:
- driving in hazardous conditions
- excessive fatigue
- high stress levels
- inadequate rest and relaxation
- long hours
- long periods of time away from family and other social supports
- low job satisfaction
- sleep deprivation
- time pressures due to demands of “just in time” (JIT) delivery requirements
Dealing with the pressures of driving and the loneliness of the road can cause truck drivers to self-medicate their mental health problems with drugs or alcohol. Long-haul truck drivers are particularly at risk for substance abuse and mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.
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Truck Drivers, Mental Health And Co-Occurring Disorders
Truck drivers face a multitude of risks relating to mental health, especially for those on long-haul routes. For many urban-setting truck drivers, job-related factors like time pressures and social isolation can cause psychological strain and emotional distress, leading to risky behaviors like substance use and paid sex with sex workers.
Compared to the rest of U.S. males, depression remains a higher risk for male truck drivers, who make up nearly 95 percent of the truck driver workforce. Co-occurring disorders, which is the existence of a mental health and substance use disorder at the same time, is more common among men than women, putting many truck drivers at risk.
The majority of truck drivers never receive treatment for mental health issues, which often include:
- chronic fatigue
- emotional problems
- sleeping problems
- substance use disorders
Mental health problems also occur among trucker drivers because of high psychological demands and lowered perceived control over their job. In one study, almost one-third of all drivers surveyed reported past or current feelings of loneliness. In regard to the past month, almost 70 percent of drivers surveyed reported having low energy or feeling tired. Dual diagnosis treatment is most often the best course of action to take when dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.
The Connection Between Truck Driver Fatalities And Substance Abuse
In 2016, over 4,300 people were killed in accidents involving large trucks in the US.
Most of the fatalities involved in large truck accidents are either the truck driver or passengers in other vehicles. Alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription medications play a role in truck-driver-related fatal accidents.
One Large Truck Crash Causation Study (LTCCS) collected large truck crash data between the years 2001 and 2003 to find insight into the contributing risks for accidents. The data looked at the 65,000 crashes in the years examined, and over 25 percent involved prescription drugs. Other substances were more rare, with less than one percent involving alcohol and just over two percent involving illegal drugs.
Prescription drugs like Vicodin (hydrocodone), Xanax (alprazolam) and Ambien (zolpidem) can seriously impair a driver. Research shows other drugs popular among truck drivers, like marijuana, increases lane weaving, limits attention to the road and results in poor reaction time.
Truck Driver Resources For Substance Abuse Prevention
The more truck drivers have easy access to information and education regarding substance abuse and addiction, the more likely they are to reduce the risk of use. Consider the following resources for preventing drug and alcohol abuse:
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
Research suggests around 50 percent of all men with addiction do not seek treatment. If a truck driver is suffering from addiction, it’s crucial they seek help immediately. Occupational hazards put both the truckers and others at risk.
Find Treatment For Addiction And Substance Abuse
There is no right treatment best for everyone. Truck drivers can be treated for addiction and mental health problems within inpatient or outpatient programs. In many cases, inpatient programs better serve people with co-occurring disorders because of the highly structured environment and around-the-clock medical care and supervision.
Reaching out for help is the first step for overcoming addiction. To learn more about prevention efforts within the trucking community, contact us today.
- Center for Prevention and Health Services: National Business Group on Health — An Employers Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse
- Commercial Carrier Journal — Database of truckers who fail drug/alcohol tests coming in 2020
- Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration — Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2016
- Issues in Mental Health Nursing — Trucking Organization and Mental Health Disorders of Truck Drivers
- National Institute on Drug Abuse — Drugged Driving
- Occupational and Environmental Medicine — Psychoactive substance use by truck drivers: a systematic review
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — Wellness Strategies
- Transportation Research Circular — Trucking 101
- U.S. Department of Transportation — Federal Drug and Alcohol Testing Regulations