It’s Time to Register for the New FMCSA Clearinghouse—Here’s What You Need to Know

November 15, 2019

If you employ commercial drivers, you may have heard rumors over the past few years about a new online database for drug and alcohol program violations. Now, it’s finally here.

Last month, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) officially opened registration for the new Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, an online database that will—moving forward—compile all records of commercial drivers who fail or refuse a drug or alcohol test. Starting on January 6, 2020, motor carriers will be required to use the Clearinghouse to conduct pre-employment and annual driver checks. 

Keep reading to learn more about what it is, how it works, and how to register. Jump to any section by clicking one of the links below—or, if you’re short on time, skip directly to our four-step Clearinghouse preparation checklist to see what you need to do to be prepared.

What is the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse?

The Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse is an online database created by the FMCSA, a subsection of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). It’s designed to help the federal government and motor carriers understand whether a commercial driver is currently prohibited from performing safety-sensitive functions due to drug or alcohol use. 

The Clearinghouse rule requires that starting on January 6, 2020, any commercial driver’s license (CDL) drivers who fail or refuse a drug or alcohol test will have their violation recorded in the Clearinghouse. Moving forward, driver violation records will be kept in the Clearinghouse for five years, or until the driver successfully completes the return-to-duty (RTD) process.

Why was it created?

Joe DeLorenzo, the FMCSA's Director of Enforcement and Compliance, talked about the reasoning behind the Clearinghouse at this year’s Great American Trucking Show in Dallas. He emphasized that the Clearinghouse is meant to help protect public roads by:

  • Closing loopholes in the driver screening process: Currently, if a driver fails a drug or alcohol test during a pre-employment or annual check, they can simply “job hop”—wait a few weeks, go to another employer, take another test, pass it the second time around, and get hired without completing the required RTD process. Although CDL employers are required to check if prospective employees have failed a test for controlled substances within the last three years, there is currently no central database for failed tests. In order to complete pre-employment checks, you have to manually contact previous employers and wait for their reply—an unreliable process that leaves lots of room for error. The Clearinghouse would solve this problem by providing a digital, five-year history on all violations. 

  • Making pre-employment checks easier: Before hiring a new CDL driver, the FMCSA requires that employers obtain a three-year drug or alcohol violation history. The current process of manually contacting previous employers isn’t just prone to loopholes—it’s also incredibly cumbersome and inefficient, since you have to wait for previous employers to reply to your inquiry. The Clearinghouse aims to make pre-employment checks easier by providing a central database where employers can—in real-time—see if their prospective employees have any violations. Keep in mind: data won’t start being collected until January 6, 2020, so you will have to conduct both electronic queries via the Clearinghouse and manual inquiries with previous employers until January 6, 2023, at which point the Clearinghouse will contain the minimum three years of historical data.

How does it work?

Starting on January 6, 2020, Medical Review Officers (MROs)—licensed physicians who are responsible for reviewing drivers’ alcohol and drug tests—will be required to submit positive test results to the Clearinghouse. 

Drivers who receive a positive drug or alcohol test will be required to complete the official RTD process before the violation is cleared and they are allowed to get back behind the wheel or perform any other safety-sensitive functions.

Meanwhile, employers of CDL drivers will be able to use the Clearinghouse to conduct pre-employment and annual checks. They will be able to purchase and run queries based on a prospective employee’s CDL number to see if they have had any positive drug or alcohol test results within the last five years (or since the Clearinghouse was established).

What are the different types of queries?

There are two different types of queries that you can run in the Clearinghouse:

  • Full queries: Full queries must be conducted as part of your pre-employment investigation before hiring a prospective CDL driver. A full query will provide detailed information on a driver’s resolved or unresolved violations in the Clearinghouse. Full queries require drivers to log into the Clearinghouse and provide their consent electronically.

  • Limited queries: Limited queries (also sometimes called annual queries) must be conducted at least annually on currently employed CDL drivers to ensure they don’t have any outstanding drug or alcohol violations that would prohibit them from performing safety-sensitive functions. A limited query will indicate whether there is information on the driver recorded in the Clearinghouse; if there is, employers will need to follow up with a full query (they will only be charged one fee). Electronic consent from drivers is not necessary to conduct limited queries—instead, employers must obtain consent via a paper form. The FMCSA has posted a sample limited consent form on their website that you can download and use.

When do you need to conduct a query?

The Clearinghouse final rule—the official federal regulation—requires that CDL employers conduct queries in two instances:

  • Before hiring a new driver: Employers should conduct a full query as part of any pre-employment driver investigation.

  • At least annually for all drivers you employ: Employers should conduct limited queries at least once per year for every CDL driver currently employed.

How much does it cost?

Employers will have to pay the FMCSA a $1.25 fee for conducting a query (either full or limited). Consortia/third-party administrators (C/TPAs) cannot purchase queries on behalf of employers, so if you’re an owner-operator, you will have to purchase queries and give your C/TPA approval to run queries on your behalf.

You can also buy and run queries in bulk. Although bulk queries aren’t discounted—for example, a bundle of 1,000 queries will cost $1,250—they don’t ever expire, so bulk buys can reduce administrative hassle for large fleets.

Query plans are available for purchase now. You can also see query bundle pricing on the FMCSA website.

Who needs to register?

If you fall into one of the five categories below, you will need to register for the Clearinghouse:

  • Employers of CDL drivers, including owner-operators: If you operate a fleet and have any current employees who operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) and hold a CDL, you will need to register for the Clearinghouse. If you’re an owner-operator, you will also need to register, since you technically employ yourself as a CDL driver. In addition to registering, employers will be required to report any “actual knowledge” of controlled substance violations to the Clearinghouse. 

  • CDL drivers (if they switch jobs after January 6, 2020): Only CDL—or commercial learner’s permit (CLP)—holders who are planning to switch jobs after January 6, 2020, need to register. Why? Full queries (conducted before employment) require driver consent via the Clearinghouse, whereas limited queries (conducted at least annually for existing drivers) will still only require paper consent forms. CDL holders who are looking to change jobs will need to register on the Clearinghouse website, provide their CDL number, and ensure all of their information is accurate.

  • Medical review officers (MROs): MROs are the independent, third-party “gatekeepers” of the drug and alcohol testing process. As licensed physicians, they are the people who review drug and alcohol laboratory test results. MROs are required to register for the Clearinghouse so that they can report verified positive drug or alcohol test results. They are also required to report test refusals.

  • Substance abuse professionals (SAPs): Similarly, SAPs are also licensed professionals who are critical to the drug and alcohol testing process. DOT-qualified SAPs evaluate drivers who have a recorded violation, make recommendations concerning education, treatment, or follow-up testing, and assist with the RTD process. SAPs are required to register for the Clearinghouse so that they can report information about a driver’s RTD activities and status, including when the initial SAP assessment occurred and when the driver is eligible for RTD testing.

  • Consortia/third-party administrators (C/TPAs): Employers—particularly owner-operators—can designate a C/TPA who can report violations and conduct queries on their behalf. If you are an owner-operator, you will be required to designate a C/TPA in the Clearinghouse.

How do you register?

You can register on the official Clearinghouse website. You will need to sign in with a login.gov account to begin your Clearinghouse registration. If you don’t have a login.gov account yet, you will be prompted to create one.

If you are an employer who uses a C/TPA to manage your drug and alcohol testing program, you will be able to designate your C/TPA (giving them access to run queries on your behalf) after registering. You will also be able to link your Clearinghouse account to your FMCSA Portal account.

When do you need to register by?

There is no deadline for registration. However, mandatory use of the Clearinghouse goes into effect in just a few months on January 6, 2020. Starting then, MROs will be required to submit positive test results to the Clearinghouse, and you will have to have an account in order to conduct queries.

That’s why the FMCSA is recommending that anyone who needs to register for the Clearinghouse should do so now, so you can get familiar with the system and be prepared to use it. You can register on the official Clearinghouse website.

Clearinghouse preparation checklist

What do you need to do to be prepared for January 6, 2020, when mandatory use of the Clearinghouse goes into effect? Below, we’ve broken it down into four key items to consider adding to your to-do list.

  • Register for the Clearinghouse: You can register today on the official Clearinghouse website. If you fall into one of the five categories of people who need to register outlined above, you will need to register in order to use the Clearinghouse when the FMCSA begins collecting data in January.

  • Update your testing policy: Start thinking about how to incorporate the Clearinghouse into your driver testing policy and hiring plan. You’ll need to consider both pre-employment and annual checks. Pre-employment checks will require full queries, whereas annual checks will only require limited queries (learn more about the different types of queries above).

  • Develop procedures for purchasing and running queries: Each query costs $1.25, and you can purchase queries in bulk (although there is no discount). Query plans are available for purchase now, so make sure to decide how and when you’ll purchase queries. If you work with a C/TPA, you will need to purchase queries and give your C/TPA approval to run queries on your behalf.

  • Communicate with drivers: Update your drivers on any changes to your testing policy, and let prospective drivers know that they will need to register for the Clearinghouse in order for you to complete their pre-employment full query, since it requires electronic consent. If you have annual checks coming up, make sure to let drivers know that positive tests after January 6, 2020, will be logged in the Clearinghouse.

You can find more Clearinghouse information on the official Clearinghouse website.

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