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What is the FMCSA Clearinghouse for truckers?

The FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) is rolling out a new program called Clearinghouse, and it will usher in some big changes for truckers. It’s going to be operational in January 2020, and that’s going to be here before we know it.

Since this is going to be such a big change in the industry, it’s important that truckers and trucking businesses understand what Clearinghouse is and what it does. From drivers to employers, it’s something to know about. And that’s why we’re going to explain the goals of Clearinghouse and what it means for trucking. We also caught up with Tommy Ruke, founder of the Motor Carrier Insurance Education Foundation (MCIEF) to get some of his thoughts about it.

What is Clearinghouse?

The Clearinghouse is an online database that has real-time information about the drug and alcohol violations of CDL and CLP holders. Ruke explained it this way: “It’s the driver’s responsibility to register in the database, and then before they can be hired with a CDL position, the employer has to check the database to see if they have any failed or refused drug tests.”

It can be looked at by employers, the FMCSA, State Drivers Licensing Agencies, and state law enforcement. That’s what it is in a nutshell, but of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.

“This is nothing new,” Ruke said. “This has been in the making for four, five years. The discussion has always been on what to report and who’s going to be responsible.”

What will the Clearinghouse contain?

There’s a lot of information that’s going to go into the Clearinghouse. It’s going to have the records of violations of drug and alcohol prohibitions in 49 CFR Part 382, Subpart B. It will have information about:

  • Positive drug tests
  • Positive alcohol tests
  • Drivers completing the return-to-duty process and follow-up testing plan

So, for people who have CDLs or CLPs, this info is going to be visible to employers, the FMCSA, state drivers license agencies, and state law enforcement. And if a driver has a violation in one state, the Clearinghouse will show that information even if they apply for a CDL in another state. (The purpose of this is that the information needs to be kept complete and accurate.)

What’s the purpose?

In Ruke’s words, the purpose of the Clearinghouse is “to keep impaired drivers off the highway. It’s all about safety.”

So yes, the goal of the database is to improve safety on highways. (That’s kind of what the FMCSA does.) The Clearinghouse will help employers, the FMCSA, state drivers licensing agencies, and law enforcement to quickly find out if a driver cannot legally drive a CMV due to a violation of drug/alcohol use. It’s intended to help make sure that drivers go through the necessary steps before they drive again.

What is the timeline that truckers need to know about?

2016: Congress mandated that it would establish a drug and alcohol Clearinghouse and create the responsibilities of those who have to participate.

Fall 2019: You can begin to register for the Clearinghouse.

Jan. 6, 2020: Use of Clearinghouse will be mandatory and employers will have to report certain drug and alcohol violations. They can use Clearinghouse for queries, but for the previous three years, they will still have to use manual inquiries.

Jan. 6, 2023: Employers can only query using Clearinghouse so they can fulfill their employer requirement.

If this all seems overwhelming, don’t worry. You can sign up for email updates through the FMCSA so you can stay up-to-date on all the new developments where Clearinghouse is concerned.

How does this affect employers?

Employers are going to have some responsibilities with the implementation of the database. Employers will have to:

  • Use the Clearinghouse to do a full query for prospective drivers they’re considering hiring.
  • Do annual limited queries for the drivers in their employ.
  • Get electronic consent when they do a full query of a driver – including pre-employment.
  • Use the Clearinghouse to report violations of drug/alcohol use.
  • Record return-to-duty (RTD) negative test results AND record the date that a driver with drug or alcohol violations completed their follow-up testing plan.

It’s really important that employers understand what they need to do when Clearinghouse goes into effect. “It’s going to change how you screen a hire,” Ruke said. He also pointed out that employers must “understand what they have to do when they hire drivers.”

Full query vs. limited query.

You might hear the terms full query and limited query thrown around quite a bit. But what do these terms mean, and how are they different?

A limited query does not give specific information about a violation in a driver’s Clearinghouse record, though it does let an employer see if a driver has any information about resolved or unresolved drug or alcohol violations. These require a general consent (from outside the Clearinghouse) from the driver, and the request will show how long the driver is providing consent for.

A full query, on the other hand, lets the employer see the details of drug or alcohol violations in the driver’s record in the database. The employer has to get the driver’s consent in the Clearinghouse before the information will be given.

What if I’m an owner-operator?

If you’re an owner-operator (meaning you have a CDL and you employ yourself) you might wonder how Clearinghouse applies to you. Owner-operators have to make sure they follow the regulations for drivers as well as those for employers (since you’re kind of both.) An owner-operator must have consortium or third-party administrator to assist with the employer side of the regulations.

So, that means that owner-operators can’t get around querying the Clearinghouse about themselves, though the consortium or third-party administrator can do that for them. Also, the consortium or third-party administrator has to report drug and alcohol violations for the owner-operator.

What about violations that happened before Clearinghouse became effective?

The Clearinghouse will only have violations that happened on or after January 6, 2020 – the date that the program becomes effective.

So, that’s the tip of the iceberg as far as Clearinghouse is concerned. Truck drivers, employers, and motor carriers have to understand their responsibilities under the new regulations. The FMCSA is a great source of additional information about Clearinghouse.

Special thanks to Tommy Ruke for providing his insight for this article!