The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

New Rules Target Medically Unfit Drivers

December 03, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C.  --- Federal officials are implementing regulatory reforms aimed at getting medically unfit truck and bus drivers off the road.

Under a rule approved by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, states will be required to merge commercial truck and bus drivers' licenses with drivers' medical examination certificates into a single electronic record, the Associated Press reported this week. Linking the two will make it easier to check whether drivers comply with medical requirements to operate commercial vehicles. States will have three years to meet requirements.

The administration has also proposed creating a registry of medical examiners qualified to award certificates to drivers, AP reported. Examiners who fail to meet minimum standards could be barred from issuing fitness-to-drive certificates.

"These actions will support and strengthen our continuing commitment to ensure that only medically qualified individuals are allowed to operate an interstate truck or bus. Safety is our paramount responsibility," John Hill, head of the motor carrier safety administration, said in a statement.

Earlier this year at a House hearing, agency officials drew sharp criticism  for going years without addressing the problem of medically unfit drivers despite repeated warnings from Congress.

The rule finalized on Monday addresses some of the recommendations that the National Transportation Safety Board made in 2001 in response to a motorcoach accident two years earlier in New Orleans that killed 22.

In the New Orleans accident, NTSB said the 46-year-old bus driver suffered life-threatening kidney and heart conditions but still held a valid commercial license and certificate saying he was fit to drive. A passenger recounted seeing the driver slumped in his seat moments before the crash, AP reported.

Tractor-trailer and bus drivers have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells while behind the wheel. Such illnesses have been linked to thousands of serious truck accidents.

Many commercial vehicle drivers whose serious medical conditions are known to their employers, health care providers and others are never reported to motor vehicle licensing authorities, NTSB said.

Earlier this year, a Government Accountability Office study concluded that hundreds of thousands of drivers operate trucks and buses even though they qualify for federal medical disability payments.

A separate study by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee found that fabricating medical certificates required to operate commercial trucks and buses was so easy there was little incentive for drivers to obtain a legitimate document.

"Because so few attempts are made to authenticate a certificate, there is little risk that a driver will be caught if he or she forges or adulterates a certificate," the study said.

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