Stimulant Usage Puts
Dangerous Drivers on the Road

By Tim Becker —

Long-haul truckers have been struggling to stay alert to drive longer routes since the long-ago days when doctors freely dispensed amphetamine “diet pills” to help housewives stay slim. A 1956 FDA investigation into truck drivers using Benzedrine (known back then as bennies, pep pills and copilots) exposed rampant usage of stimulants on the nation’s highways.

These days, the drug of choice has changed, but the problem caused by stimulant abuse remains. Amphetamines, especially methamphetamine, continue to plague the United States, and trucking culture is no exception, with one study reporting that 85 percent of truckers said they could find meth at truck stops if they wanted to.

While some drivers turn to the class of drugs known as “crank” or “speed” thinking it will help them stay awake or even improve their driving, psychoactive substances like meth actually have been proved to impair driving skills by merely masking fatigue, leading to more accidents.

Drivers are required to submit to random drug testing regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Because the overall violation rate fell below 1 percent for three years, the FMCSA recently reduced the percentage of driver positions being tested from 50 percent to 25 percent in 2016. The agency also proposed creating a drug and alcohol clearinghouse system to more efficiently identify drivers who are ineligible to drive for failing to comply with federal rules, including testing.

While those developments sound encouraging, current testing has its limitations. The National Transportation Safety Board has been part of a recent effort to change the standard of testing from urinalysis to hair sampling, which can identify abusers more accurately after drugs have passed through their systems. But the drug of choice among drivers can be a moving target.

Message boards related to the trucking industry are filled with questions about where to find ephedrine, a highly-regulated stimulant used in bronchodilators and appetite suppressants that used to be sold under the brand names Mini Thins and Hydroxycut.

Truckers are also experimenting with the prescription narcolepsy drug modafinil, commonly known as the “Limitless” drug. Sold as Provigil in the United States, modafinil is also popular with college students cramming for tests. Like college students, some truckers abuse ADHD-prescribed stimulants such as Adderall.

Not all truck drivers use illegal stimulants. Some stay alert on long trips with coffee, with some companies taking direct aim at the driver market – Jittery Joe’s makes a “Trucker Speed” blend, and ultra-strong Death Wish Coffee used reality stars from “Ice Road Truckers” in its Super Bowl ads.

When coffee can’t deliver enough caffeine, some drivers turn to sugary energy drinks like Red Bull, which can have unhealthy results as well.

The U.S. Food and Drink Administration reports that “caffeine intoxication” leads to irritability, nervousness, irregular or rapid heartbeat, muscle spasms and rambling speech patterns. And just an hour after consuming a highly caffeinated and sugared drink, tired drivers experience serious lapses in concentration and slower reaction times as the drink wears off.

Trade magazines for drivers, such as The Truckers Report, recommend that responsible drivers avoid caffeine and sugar to avoid these crashes, and their advice for staying awake is focused on rest, nutrition, and mental stimulants like music and podcasts.


Tim Becker, a truck crash attorney with Dollar Burns & Becker and victim advocate.