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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Rules Remove Medically Unfit Truck and Bus Drivers from the Road

New Study Reveals Scores of Drivers Who Are Medically Disabled

After years of being accused of dragging their feet on the issue, federal regulators are taking steps to remove medically unfit truck and bus drivers the road.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has approved a rule whereby states will be mandated to merge commercial truck and bus drivers' licenses with drivers' medical examination certificates into a single electronic record.

By linking the two, it will be easier to check whether drivers have met medical requirements to operate commercial vehicles. States will be required to comply within three years.

A registry of medical examiners qualified to award certificates to drivers has also been proposed by the administration. Examiners could be barred from issuing fitness-to-drive certificates by failing to meet minimum standards.

In a statement, John Hill, head of the motor carrier safety administration, said, "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."

At a House hearing earlier this year, agency officials were severely chastised for going years without addressing the problem of medically unfit drivers despite repeated warnings from Congress.

The recently-finalized rule addresses some of a series of recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2001 in response to a motor coach accident in New Orleans that killed 22 two years earlier.

The NTSB said that in the New Orleans accident, the 46-year-old bus driver, Frank Bedell, suffered life-threatening kidney and heart conditions but still held a valid commercial license and certificate declaring him fit to drive. A passenger testified to seeing the driver slumped in his seat just seconds prior to the crash.

While behind the wheel, tractor-trailer and bus drivers have suffered seizures, heart attacks or unconscious spells. These episodes have been a critical factor in thousands of serious truck accidents.

The NTSB says that 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.

Earlier this year, a Government Accountability Office study found hundreds of thousands of drivers operating trucks and buses, despite having qualified for federal medical disability payments.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee commissioned a separate study that 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.

One Ohio medical provider, contacted by the committee, said forgery of medical certificates is so routine that "no one gets alarmed by it anymore."

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