DOT Return-to-Duty Process: An In-Depth Explanation

December 20, 2022

Failing a DOT test or engaging in other prohibited drug and alcohol behaviors may temporarily cause commercial drivers to lose their ability to work. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires drivers with substance abuse violations, such as a failed DOT drug test, to undergo a series of drug tests, including return-to-duty, follow-up, and post-rehab testing, before returning to work. 

When is the DOT return to duty process required?

A commercial truck driver must go through the return to duty process for any instances of known drug or alcohol use. Examples of violations that require the driver to complete the return to duty include:

The motor carrier may learn of violations through several ways, including the driver’s admission, observed use of illicit substances, traffic citations received while working related to drug or alcohol offenses, information from previous employers when the DOT requires a drug or alcohol inquiry, and during a CDL drug and alcohol clearinghouse inquiry. 

What are the steps in the return to duty process?

The steps required in the return to duty process are outlined in 49 CFR Part 40

These actions include the following steps: 

1. Complete an SAP Evaluation: Immediately after a motor carrier learns of a violation, they must provide the driver with details of the violation and a list of substance abuse professionals (SAP) with appropriate credentials and DOT training to perform driver evaluations. Employers must report violation information by the close of the third business day following the day they obtained information related to alcohol or drug use. 

Since driving is considered a safety-sensitive position, only approved SAPs should be selected for the evaluation. While it is not required that the individual select an SAP from the list provided by the motor carrier, evaluating the SAP to ensure they have the required credentials is essential.

The individual may opt not to complete this step, but it will prevent them from legally returning to work. Drivers that want to follow through with the return to duty process may select an approved SAP and follow through with the evaluation, which includes: 

2. Completion of the SAP Treatment and/or Education Plan: After the SAP evaluation, the driver will also have to complete the specified treatment plan satisfactorily. The employer is not required to pay for the SAP evaluation or any treatment plan steps. 

However, these steps are still required as the driver must successfully complete the entire return to duty process, which can be tracked through the online FMCSA Clearinghouse. 

3. Completion of a Follow-UP SAP Evaluation: A second SAP evaluation must be completed after treatment. The SAP follow-up evaluation offers a fitness determination as assessed by the SAP. However, the decision about returning to work is ultimately up to the employer and may be subject to collective bargaining agreements or other legal requirements. 

Within the follow-up evaluation, the SAP can make one of the following three determinations:

4. Complete Follow-up Drug and Alcohol Testing: Once you have completed all other steps in the return to duty process, your current employer can request return to duty testing. A negative return to duty test result will clear the driver to return to work. 

However, the DOT requires additional follow-up testing. They require the SAP to schedule at least six drug and alcohol tests over a one-year time frame, and the process may continue for up to five years. Each follow-up test requires direct observation, no matter whether the driver changes employers.

Drivers must complete these actions or wait five years before being legally allowed to work again. Additionally, the steps of the return to duty process must be completed in order to be tracked correctly in the FMCSA’s Clearinghouse. Unfortunately, very few commercial vehicle drivers with drug or alcohol violations return to duty.

Failure to complete the return to duty process may result in the loss of income for many of these individuals and their families since 49 CFR Part 40 prohibits any motor carrier from employing someone with violations as a driver or in any other role with safety-sensitive duties. 

While the return to duty process can be time-consuming and costly, it is often the only way to get your career as a commercial driver back on track after a drug or alcohol violation. 

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