Members of the U.S. House of Representatives jumped federal regulators recently for failing to implement recommendations made in 2001 that were designed to keep medically unfit commercial truck and bus drivers off the nation’s highways.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, (D-MN), told Rose McMurray, the chief safety officer for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, that deaths and injuries caused by medically unfit drivers are “on your conscience” because the agency has taken so long to act.
A strong message was sent by the committee to the agency to “get people moving.” The agency’s efforts to fulfill the eight recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board was described as having been “painstakingly slow.” It appears little – if anything – has been done.
So far the agency has proposed only one rule. However, an agency spokesman says they are close to proposing another to address two of the recommendations: to merge the licensing and medical certification of commercial drivers; and to create a national registry of examiners approved to issue medical certificates. The agency claims to have made progress on two other recommendations. But, nothing of consequence has been done on the remaining four recommendations.
The NTSB made the recommendations in response to a 1999 motorcoach accident in New Orleans that killed 22 people. Those recommendations were on the agency’s “most wanted” list in 2003. In the New Orleans motorcoach accident, the NTSB said the bus driver suffered life-threatening kidney and heart conditions, but still held a valid license and medical certificate. A passenger recounted seeing the driver slumped in his seat moments before the crash. It’s been reported that tractor-trailer and bus drivers have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells while behind the wheel of their vehicles. Such illnesses have been a critical factor in thousands of serious truck and bus accidents.
The NTSB recommended that examiners who certify drivers as medically fit be qualified and know what to look for, and that a system be set up to track medical certificate applications and prevent drivers from doctor shopping. A study by the House committee found that it’s so easy to fabricate the medical certificates required to operate commercial trucks and buses that there’s almost no incentive for drivers to obtain a legitimate document. It was reported that there are so few controls over how drivers obtain medical certificates that it’s “relatively easy for a motivated commercial driver to circumvent the physical examination requirement.” Anther problem is that there is no database or central repository which would allow state inspectors to verify the legitimacy of a medical certificate. It was concluded by the study:
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 was based on a sample of 614 medical certificates obtained from truck drivers at roadside inspections in California, Illinois and Ohio. The committee’s staff attempted to contact the examiners named on the medical certificates but could only verify 407 as valid. One Ohio doctor contacted by the committee said forgery of medical certificates is so commonplace “no one gets alarmed by it anymore.” Hundreds of thousands of drivers have commercial licenses even though they also qualify for full federal disability payments, according to a U.S. safety study disclosed by the Associated Press last month.
The Government Accountability Office said in the study that 563,000 commercial drivers were determined by the Veterans Affairs Department, Labor Department or Social Security Administration to also be eligible for full disability benefits over health issues. It should be noted that the GAO says disability doesn’t necessarily mean a driver is unfit to operate a commercial vehicle. Nevertheless, GAO investigators found alarming examples of drivers who were physically unfit that raised doubts about the safety of the nation’s highways.
Source: Associated Press
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