Q&A: Trucking on Steroids: Performance Enhanced?

Q: We’re a motor carrier, and as such are very concerned about drug use by our drivers. Per the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, we conduct tests on our drivers, and have had to get rid of several who we found had been using amphetamines and methamphetamines (one had even been doing cocaine!).

The drivers tell us privately they use these drugs to keep them more alert on the road. We do primarily long-haul work, and I know the tedium of driving long hours can wear them down and make them drowsy and less responsive to emergency situations and even for normal driving at the high speeds of the interstates and other intercity highways.

I recently ran into a situation, though, that I frankly don’t know how to handle. We found one of our drivers with a bunch of syringes and called him in to discharge him. He objected vigorously and demanded an immediate blood test, which we had done at a local clinic. It was completely clean. When we persisted with him, he told us he sometimes injects caffeine (!) and also uses some steroids, to build himself up and keep him awake and alert.

The FMCSA doesn’t seem to prohibit either of these things, and we had to reinstate him, but I’m still uneasy. Can you shed any light?


A: Oh, Lord. I suppose it was only a matter of time before this silliness about so-called performance-enhancing drugs in sports spilled over into the workplace.

You have, in my opinion, a fairly wigged-out driver there, but he’s not illegal or even borderline. Most folks get their caffeine by drinking coffee and the various energy-booster soft drinks, but it does come in injectable form as a drug named caffeine citrate. Medically, it’s used mostly to treat breathing problems in premature infants, but I suppose in larger (much larger!) doses, it’ll give you a quick boost.

As for the steroids, they have various medical uses; one is muscle-building, and presumably your driver feels that, too, gives him more stamina. Perhaps it does. More likely the main effect on his driving is subjective, based on his own perception rather than physical criteria.

Both are perfectly legal under FMCSA regulations. He may well not be obtaining them legally, but that’s not your problem. And he’s placing himself at considerable risk by using them; caffeine in big doses is pretty tough on the heart and kidneys (and overdoses can be fatal), and the adverse effects of chronic steroid use are well-documented and far too many to list here. But that’s not your problem, either; neither makes him an unsafe driver, which is your only concern as his employer.

I guess all the recent media hype about cyclist Lance Armstrong, baseball stars Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and other athletes using PEDs had to trickle into the real world sooner or later. To me, the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot, even in sports. The rules about what may and may not be used by athletes are convoluted and arbitrary. (Even transfusions of your own blood are banned!)

Yet consider what’s allowed. Aspirin and other over-the-counter painkillers are fine; do you think an athlete would perform better with an untreated headache? Consider golfer Phil Mickelson’s ubiquitous commercials touting the arthritis-fighting drug Enbrel; should the idea be to make him play in a “natural” state of pain?

I could go on and on. I take a beta-blocker for high blood pressure, yet that’s also considered a PED. (I guess I’m not making the Olympic team!) Even some OTC tonics are outlawed for trace amounts of this or that substance deemed to give sports performers an “unfair” advantage.

The sports moguls seem single-mindedly intent on rolling back modern medicine to the 19th century or before. You or I could consume these PEDs by the bushel and not be on anything close to the level of these talented and trained athletes. All men (and women) may be created equal, as our Declaration of Independence says, but they don’t stay that way very long. So why not allow the superior performers willing to take the risks the extra edge that gives them?

As for the FMCSA, its goal is to keep commercial drivers away from performance-diminishing drugs, not the opposite (well, those and the ones our government has in its wisdom declared to be illegal for everybody). So curb your unease; if you want to help protect your driver’s health, then suggest counseling, but otherwise you’re clear.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843- 559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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